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Top 10 translation blunders of international marketing, PR and branding

Top 10 translation blunders of international marketing, PR and branding

Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about the elves or the lephrechauns or the hobbits in Lord of the Rings but “the small people” whom the oil company BP cares about, according to its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg.

After meeting recently with President Obama to discuss the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster, Svanberg informed the world’s media, “We care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies, or greedy companies, don’t care. But that is not case in BP; we care about the small people.”

The problem is that Svanberg, a Swede, is a fluent English speaker but not a native one and appears not to have consulted a professional linguist before making his pronouncement.

So, while Svanberg was trying to sound caring, humble and apologetic by saying that that BP cared about the ordinary folks affected by the oil spill, his clumsy use of English ended up making both him and BP instead sound lofty, remote and out-of-touch, if not arrogant and condescending.

Not only, in other words, was Svanberg’s intended message lost in translation but a pronouncement that was meant to improve BP’s battered image only ended up battering it further, while Svanberg himself was exposed to both criticism and some ridicule. He later apologised for the comment and the fact that he “spoke clumsily”.

“If only he’d asked a linguist!”, says Jurga Zilinskiene, MD of London-based Today Translations.

Svanberg can console himself that it could have been worse – or, indeed, that it has been down the years for other companies, which have seen their marketing, branding and PR efforts not just lost in translation but shipwrecked.
If, on the other hand, Svanberg is not inclined to console himself, then Today Translations is inclined to help him and fellow brand guardians out, by compiling the following list.

Top Ten Translation Blunders Of International Marketing, PR and Branding

1.  Buy Our New Car… Er, It Doesn’t Go

Most of us probably know the story of Chevy’s Nova car and how it was marketed as such in Latin America, even though what “Nova” literally means in Spanish is “It doesn’t go”. Indeed, it must be the most famous tale of its kind.

What many of us might not know, however, is that, in fact, the story isn’t true but is instead the marketing equivalent of an urban myth. Like some of the other examples quoted below, it has, nonetheless, entered the folklore of international marketing.

Some car companies, on the other hand, have been guilty of putting more effort into coming up with a funky name for a new model than into checking what it means in the languages of key target markets, as the blog recently pointed out:  

“A couple of years ago Kia, to much fanfare and with a Hispanic audience among its primary targets, launched the rugged “Borrego” which translates literally to “lamb”. Not to be outdone, though only sold in Asia, Nissan unveiled their own booger, or “Moco” to an adoring public. But the favorite of all, even better I think than Chevy’s NO VA, has to be Mazda’s Laputa*. Who wouldn’t want to jump in that ride?”

[* “La puta” in Spanish, of course, means “the whore”.]

2. The Future’s Bright, The Future’s… Er, Protestant Loyalist?

The telecoms brand, Orange is generally considered a great marketing success story, as was the launch across the UK in the 1990s of what was to become its famous slogan: “The future’s bright… the future’s Orange”.

This was an uncontroversial suggestion in most parts of the UK but rather less so among the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, where the term “Orange” is linked to the Orange Order, the Protestant organization, viewed by many Catholics as both sectarian and hostile.  

So, the best way to sell a mobile phone to a Northern Ireland Catholic is not to pronounce that “The future’s bright… the future’s Protestant Loyalist”.

As often with translation, the problem in this case hinged not just on the word but on the culture.

3. Buy Our Baby Food… Er, If You Want “To Vomit”

Gerber is the name of one of America’s best-known makers of baby food but “gerber” can also be translated into French as “to vomit” – somewhat limiting for the brand’s next global marketing push.

Wisely therefore, the name is not marketed in France but, according to, “…there is a French Canadian Web page that reads, ‘Les aliments pour bébés Gerber ne sont disponibles pour l'instant qu'aux Etats-Unis’ (French for: The baby food Gerber [to vomit] is not here, try the U.S.).”

Meanwhile, when Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they placed a picture of a cute baby on the label of their jars, just as they do in America – but without realising that the practice in some African markets, where many consumers are illiterate, is for brands to put pictures of the contents on the labels. This led some horrified Africans to conclude that the jars contained… well, you get the gist. Or, at least, so the story is told.

4. Nothing… Er, Sucks Like An Electrolux.

Unfamiliar with the finer points of English slang, the Scandinavian company Electrolux marketed its vacuum cleaner in the English-speaking world with the slogan, 'Nothing sucks like an Electrolux'.

Or, so the story is told.

In fact, there is some debate both over whether this ad ran in the UK or the US and over whether it was an unwitting mistake or a deliberate one, made for comic effect.

Meanwhile, a copy of the actual poster can be found here

5. Fly Braniff Airlines, Fly… Er, Naked

There’s nothing like the smell and feel of real leather. That, at least, was the message that Braniff Airlines was trying to communicate when it launched its “Fly in Leather” to the Hispanic and Latin America market, in order to promote the airline’s new first-class seats.

Braniff translated the call to “Fly in Leather” too literally for the purpose of the local market, rendering it with the slogan “Vuela in Cuero”, which literally means “Fly in leather”, but which sounds identical in a radio ad to “Vuela en Cueros”, the Spanish for “Fly Naked”.

6. I Saw His Holiness, The… Er, Potato

When the Pope paid an official visit to Miami, a local T-shirt maker produced commemorative T-shirts for hawking to the Hispanic market… but with only one teeny problem – instead of declaring, “I saw the Pope” (“el Papa”), the T-shirts allegedly read, “I saw the Potato” (“la Papa”).

7. Buy Our Pens. They Won’t Make You… Er, Pregnant

Parker Pens are proud of the fact that, unlike some cheap ballpoints, its pens won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you. And that was just the message they sought to convey to the Mexican market, but without realising the Mexican Spanish word for “embarazar” does not mean “to embarrass” but “to impregnate”. Result, an ad for Parker Pens that read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

8. Are You… Er, Lactating?

Why do so many of these stories seem to involve Mexico? The answer might be because it’s often the first foreign language market into which American marketers venture.

Anyway, The US Dairy Association was reportedly so pleased with the success of its "Got Milk?" campaign that it decided to extend it to take in neighbouring Mexico.  The only problem was that the Spanish translation of “Got Milk?” that it came up with allegedly read as "Are you lactating?"

9. Pepsi… Er, Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Dead  

Western companies can find translating their marketing messages into Chinese a particular challenge. Or, so Pepsi allegedly found when insufficient attention to translation nuances led it to translate  “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave".

Now, THERE’S a brand promise.

10. Things Go Better With … Er, Bite The Wax Tadpole

When Coke first looked into rendering the name “Coca-Cola” into Chinese it came up with a translation that, depending on the precise dialect, meant either “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse stuffed with wax.”

Or, so the tale is told. Another version of it, however, is that such unfortunate translations were the work of some local Chinese shop-keepers, anticipating Coke’s arrival in China, and producing their own unofficial marketing material, without the knowledge or authority of Coke.

According to this version, Coke’s entry to the Chinese market was meticulously planned. It involved Coke researching 40,000 Chinese characters, until it found the perfect translation, which literally meant, “Happiness in the mouth.”

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