Businesses often make the mistake of thinking translation can be done by anyone who knows two or more languages. But it’s not quite as simple as that.
Even some of the world's biggest brands have got it wrong and paid a heavy price for their mistakes, with the fallout ranging from cringeworthy embarrassment to huge financial losses and reputations left in tatters in the relevant locality.
Translation experts, Lotuly, singled out 10 of the biggest corporate translation howlers of all time.
- Pepsi (1963-1967): In the 1960s, Pepsi was sizing up against its arch rival, Coca Cola. The brand introduced a new advertising campaign with the slogan ‘Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation’. The campaign was a huge success in America, but not so much in China. There, the translation was understood to say: ‘Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Dead’.
- Canadian Mist (1986): Canadian Mist is a brand of blended whisky from Canada. But the name of the brand became an issue when the company tried to introduce the product in Germany. In German, ‘mist’ means ‘manure’, which doesn’t sound very appetising.
- Coca Cola (2018): When Coca Cola launched in China, they soon found that the pronunciation of the Coca Cola name sounded very similar to the Chinese phrase ‘female horse with wax stuffing’. This wasn’t quite the image they wanted for their refreshing drink. The brand ran into problems again more recently when they attempted to combine English and New Zealand’s native Mãori language. The project was to create a slogan for their vending machines in New Zealand. And they settled on the phrase ‘Kia ora, Mate’. It was only after the slogans were in place that they discovered the Mãori translation was ‘Hello, Death’.
- Coors (1983): Coors is a US beer brewer, famous for its ‘Turn it loose’ slogan. But when the slogan was translated literally for the Spanish market, it suggested the beer would cause diarrhoea. Doh!
- Ford (2012): When Ford launched the ad campaign for its latest vehicle in Belgium, it used the slogan ‘Every car has a high-quality body’. Unfortunately for them, this was mistranslated as ‘Every car has a high-quality corpse’.
- General Electric (1988): In 1988, General Electric and Plessey Co merged their telecoms businesses, creating GEC Plessey Telecommunications and using the acronym GPT. But the merger was less well received in France. Because, in French, GPT is pronounced ‘Jai pété’, which translates as ‘I farted’.
- General Motors (1978): General Motors faced embarrassment when it launched its popular Chevy Nova in Latin America without checking the translation of its name. In Spanish ‘No va’ means ‘not going’, which is not the greatest name for any kind of motor vehicle.
- HSBC (2009): In 2009, the global bank’s ad campaign used the slogan ‘Assume nothing’ to say it didn’t make assumptions about the expectations of its customers. But in many languages, the translation was closer to ‘Do nothing’, which was problematic, as you can imagine. Thanks to its translation blunder, the bank had to spend $10 million on a global rebrand to become ‘The world’s local bank’.
- KFC (1980): KFC’s ‘Finger-lickin’ good’ slogan had been used in America since the 1950s. But when the brand decided to expand into Asia in the 1980s, they hit upon a problem. In China, the translation of ‘Finger lickin’ good’ was ‘Eat your fingers off’. Clearly this was never going to work. Thankfully, KFC were virtually unknown in China at the time. They fixed their slogan quickly and went on to become one of the country’s most popular Western fast foods.
- Parker Pens (1973): Parker Pens’ advertising slogan was: ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’, which worked perfectly in English. However, when the company translated its ad into Spanish, it was wrongly presumed that the Spanish for embarrassment is ‘embarazar’. The Spanish version of the ad read: ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant’.
Robert Bolohan of Lotuly said this of the bloopers:
Businesses often make the mistake of thinking translation can be done by anyone who knows two or more languages, but it’s never as simple as that. This list shows that even some of the world's biggest brands have got it wrong and paid a heavy price for their mistakes, from cringeworthy embarrassment to huge financial losses and reputations left in tatters in the relevant locality. It's vital to get the right message to your market and avoid cultural gaffes. Localisation services adapt your language for a particular locale or market, taking into account the regional and cultural differences as well as the differences in language."