Most Americans either remember or have heard of President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. If they remember this speech, they have likely also heard the legend that what he actually said in German was, “I am a jelly donut.” While this is not actually true (Kennedy did have good translators and he expressed himself properly), this phrase accurately shows the power that a mistranslation can have.
Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Good translation is good communication, and good communication gives you power within the business word. Everyone wants the power for his or her message to be remembered, but not for bad reasons. Unfortunately, bad translation is also powerful. Imagine your message being remembered 50 years down the line for its hilarious misinterpretation instead of for the great idea it was trying to convey. It happens. Nobody wants that though, and that is why well-done translation is so important to you business.
To exemplify how poor translations can go wrong, below are some amazing examples of mistranslations. Whether or not they are true is still up for debate. However, it remains the fact that these anecdotes of improper translations are well known and widely cited. So even if they are not 100% truthful, the power of popular opinion has nevertheless immortalized them which shows how remarkable and memorable a language error can be. Sadly, these companies are now branded with a not so flattering, but incredibly memorable public image. Not exactly something they or you would want to encourage for a business.
Chevrolet’s Spanish Blunder
Did you know that Chevy doesn’t go? This tagline should have been the English slogan if Chevy was keeping things consistent. It would have been the equivalent of the message that General Motors Chevrolet used to market the release of their Nova in Spanish-speaking markets. Unfortunately Nova looks an awful lot like “no va” in Spanish, which means, “doesn’t go.” Not exactly the best way to market a car.
KFC’s Chinese Scare
For Americans, KFC’s slogan has been “Finger lickin’ good” for forever. When KFC was introduced into China in 1987, they chose to use this exact same slogan. However, it doesn’t appear that they checked their translation closely. For the Chinese this famous slogan became “We’ll eat your fingers off.” This was probably not the message that KFC intended since KFC, so far as we know, is interested in chicken consumption.
Clairol’s German Goof
In 2006, the American hair care company Clairol released a new curling iron called the Mist Stick into the U.S. market. It was so successful that they decided to market it internationally. Sadly, when it was released in Germany, Clairol failed to realize that “mist” is the equivalent of saying “crap” in English. It comes as no great surprise that not many Germans were tempted to use a “Crap Stick” in their hair.
Pepsi’s Chinese Misunderstanding
Pepsi livened things up in China when their slogan, “We bring you back to life,” was translated into Chinese. Inadvertently they told all their potential consumers that, “We bring your ancestors back from the grave.” Not exactly the goal.
Coors Spanish Slip
When U.S. beer tycoon, Coors released their beer in Spanish speaking markets, they released it with the slogan, “Turn it loose.” Unfortunately, when this was literally translated into Spanish it read: “Suffer from Diarrhea.” The beer did not sell well…obviously.
The great American rivalry between Puffs and Kleenex brand does not exist in all countries. This may have something to do with the fact that the word “puff” is not such a flattering term outside of the United States. In fact marketing went especially poorly in Germany, where “puff” is slang for whorehouse, and in England, where “pouf” is a not-so-endearing term meaning homosexual.
Ford Pinto Misinterpretation
When the little, gas-saving Pintos were released in 1971, they were a hit in the U.S. However, it was a mystery as to why they were a struggle to sell in Brazil. It remained unsolved until Ford realized that “pinto” is slang for “male genitals.” It’s safe to say that that was not their intended Brazilian marketing strategy.
Coca Cola’s Chinese Boo-Boo
When Coke made its first attempt to translate “Coke” phonetically into Chinese, it failed. “Ke-kou-ke-la” sounded to speakers like “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a particularly drinkable product. Don’t worry though, they eventually they got it right after they did some research and found the equivalent for “happiness in the mouth” or “ko-kou-ko-le.”
Jolly Green Giant’s Arabic Oversight
The familiar, friendly Jolly Green Giant did not appear so friendly when he first appeared in Arabic speaking countries. Initially the poor guy had his name translated as “Intimidating Green Monster!” Perhaps the plan was to have him encourage more people to eat vegetables with force. But probably not.
Schweppes Italian Blooper
There is a reason you cannot order Schweppes Tonic Water in Italy. When Schweppes originally tried to market their very famous product under this name they failed to realize that in Italian they were offering Schweppes Toilet Water…
Parker Pens Problem
When Parker Pen’s famous slogan “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” was translated into Spanish, many people probably wondered what in the world their ink was made out of. A confused Spanish-speaking population read the translation as, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” We certainly hope it won’t.
Braniff Airlines Bungle
In 1977 Braniff Airlines, which later became American Airlines, proudly released advertisements for the new leather seats that were available in First Class. Unfortunately they didn’t realize that their slogan, “Fly in leather” directly translated into as, “Vuela en cuero,” which means, “Fly naked.” Not even the freethinking 70’s was ready for that.
General Electric’s French Faux-pas
And finally, General Electric made a great effort to release its new GPT partnership brand in the European Union. They were surprised when this caused a scandal in France because they didn’t realize that in French, GPT is pronounced “J’ai pété”, meaning, “I farted.” Unsurprisingly, money was lost and reputations were damaged.