translation gone wrong

Hilarious Examples of When Translation Has Gone Drastically Wrong

Globalisation is a big aspiration in today’s world, which is more connected than we could have ever foreseen. Despite the fact that the grasp of English continues to grow globally, reaching potential clients and end users in their native language can do a lot to improve engagement.

While translation might seem a straightforward process, each language has its own idioms and traits. Similarly, many of the English language’s quirks, slang and parlances don’t have any correlation to the language of your target markets.

Let’s look at some examples of translations gone so wrong they’re genuinely funny, to help prevent you from making the same mistakes.

In a bit of a fizzy tizzy

Picture the scene. It’s the 1920s, and a young and energetic American business, riding high from its success following its founding in the 1880s, is looking to capture some of the lucrative Chinese market. (The fascination with doing business in the economic wonderland of China isn’t as recent a phenomenon as many would believe.)

You might already know this tale, as it relates to an organisation widely lauded as the single most recognisable brand on the planet today: Coca-Cola.

Coca Cola

With the West already under their thrall, Coca-Cola set about translating their distinctive name into Chinese, yet found themselves stunned at the number of ways the Chinese writing system could phonetically represent them. Long story short, for a brief time the prestigious Coca-Cola brand saw its name in Mandarin translating as either “Wax Flattened Mare” or, more strangely, “Bite The Wax Tadpole”.

Whatever your opinion on the beverage giant’s flavour choices, it’s safe to assume horses, infant amphibians and wax aren’t in any way involved. Yet the error occurred as shopkeepers made their own signs translating the “co-ca-co-la” sounds into Mandarin, which itself arose due to a breakdown of international marketing and communication with local retailers.

It’s pretty clear to see how, by enlisting experienced translators and working with the local community, Coca-Cola could have entered the Chinese market much more seamlessly than they did, before finally registering their Chinese trademark in 1928. For that, they used Chinese writing characters that translated more as a “pleasant sensation welcomed by the mouth”, which is quite literally more palatable for a soft drink name.

Those of us favouring dark blue to red canned drinks needn’t feel smug, however. PepsiCo famously blundered on their own forays into the Chinese market with their slogan, the uplifting “Pepsi brings you back to life”, translating locally as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. We’ve all heard some hyperbolic product advertisements in our time, but that one definitely took the… wax tadpole.

Companies who mist the point

Mist is an evocative word, inspiring thoughts of ethereal days and dewdrop-perfect mornings, if not spooky nights in the gloom of Victorian London. Yet the word in German has other, less than savoury connotations. In short, it is the word for manure.

mist

As you can imagine, this has been stymieing companies looking to sell in Germany for years, and again emphasises the importance of thorough research and translation. The whiskey liqueur ‘Irish Mist’ received pretty poor sales when debuting under its English name in Germany for this reason. Similarly, a lack of prior research has even pulled the rug out from under the prestigious brand Rolls-Royce in the past.

Imagine being the marketing executive in charge of revealing the luxurious Silver Mist automobile at a German convention, only to discover the word’s meaning and scrambling to change the nameplates at the last minute. Each of those German examples could be easily overcome with some foresight and preparation.

Making your brand global

Errors like those we’ve described are why Lady Gaga’s name so amuses Filipinos and why English-speakers are so amused that Norwegians call shaving cream “barber skum”. Whether you’re well established overseas or looking to get your first project off the ground, it’s vital your consumers and clients know that you speak their language.

shaving foam

Strong writing, taking into account local idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, does as much for your metrics and sales abroad as knowing your audience would at home. Any barrier to your brand’s identity can stop your expansion plans dead in their tracks.

But with so many cultural and linguistic challenges to consider, overcoming them all safely can seem a headache. Luckily, experts are on hand to make sure your efforts to reach your target foreign markets aren’t in vain. Make sure you take advantage of this meticulous approach to ensure your brand retains what you want it to represent, and avoid getting lost in translation.

With our SEO and copywriting experience, together with an international team of editing experts able to smooth over the wrinkles of translations gone awry, we have what you need to make your brand global. Check out our multilingual services page or get in touch with us to see how we can help you expand your message.

Get a FREE audit of your content