Hilarious translation gaffes

Globalisation, whether you are for it or against it, has led to huge growth in international trade. Goods of all sorts cross borders in vast quantities and over vast distances. The movements back and forth are so complex it can be difficult to determine where a product even originates. Is a car assembled in Britain a British car, even if virtually all its components are made overseas and the make is Japanese (or Chinese, or American, or Indian…)?

One inevitable consequence of global trade is that marketing material needs rendering into a wide variety of languages. English may be the international language of business (for now), but if you want to sell to people in different countries, you need to do so in their languages.  This is sometimes easier said than done, particularly when it involves slogans, as the following examples demonstrate.

  • Ford’s ‘Every car has a high quality body’ morphed in Belgium into ‘Every car has a high quality corpse.’
  • Coors (the beer brand)’s ‘Turn it loose’ alarmed Spaniards, who were informed ‘You will suffer from diarrhoea.’
  • HSBC – the ‘World’s Bank’ as it once described itself – exhorted English-speaking people to ‘Assume nothing’ while inadvertently asking non-English speakers to ‘Do nothing’.
  • Despite a nice use of rhyme in a concise, informative slogan, ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’ didn’t go down in the USA in quite the way the Swedish company had intended.

The English and Chinese languages are so different, it’s perhaps not surprising that translations from one to the other seem especially prone to mistranslation. On the other hand, given the size of the Chinese market, you might think it more crucial than ever to get the translation right, which failed to happen here:

  • KFC’s ‘Finger-licking good’ became the less appetising ‘Eat your fingers off’.
  • ‘Come alive with Pepsi’ ended up as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestor back from the dead’.

Pepsi’s main rival did better, although only after realising that local traders in China were trying to combine Chinese characters to recreate the sound ‘Coca-Cola’, one result of which translated back as ‘Bite the wax tadpole’. Coca-Cola sensibly came up with an alternative trademark in China which still sounds a lot like ‘Coca-Cola’ but which equates to the more wholesome ‘permits mouth to be able to rejoice’.

To avoid gaffes and to ensure that marketing always has maximum impact, translation should always go through two stages: firstly the academic translation stage, and then the marketing copy-editing stage. The second stage ensures that the marketing text is powerful and compelling in all final languages.

Click here to visit our translation editing page.

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