Lost in Translation- The World Of Advertising

by Vikrant Pande - Nov 12, 2015 09:46 PM +05:30 IST
Lost in Translation- The World Of Advertising

When one brand is launched in a country where the spoken language is different from the country where the product was originally launched, hilarity can be ensured.

Most often marketing professionals and advertisers are considered smart people, who come up with memorable phrases, catch words and advertisements luring customers to buy what they may want but often don’t need. Yet, we find hundreds of examples of blunders related to translations, when one brand is launched in a country where the spoken language is different from the country where the product was originally launched.

There is the apocryphal tale of the detergent powder advertisement showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ images, the only mistake being it is read from right to left in Arabic! Ever since the Chinese market has been opened up, there have been many unpardonable gaffes from world’s leading brands trying to translate the English into Chinese. It is not surprising that such examples thrive in the world of marketing.

There are examples of world-famous companies who failed to aptly translate the original slogans into other languages and, in the process, managed to offend consumers losing market shares. While, at the heart of it, translation should seem easy, and in many cases the obvious mistakes should have been pointed out by the local managers if not the bosses at the head office, we see a large number of such blunders. Let us look at some of them:

i. Mitsubishi’s best-selling SUV, Pajero, was launched in Spain, but they did not realize until too late that it stood for the slang ‘jerk’ in local language!

ii. American Motors launched its new midsize car, Matador, in the early 1970’s in Puerto Rico, but it quickly realized the name meant ‘killer’ when translated in Spanish. In a country where the roads as such do not instill great confidence, no one wants a car that means killer!

iii. Ford discovered that, in Belgium, luring customers with a dead body in a car is probably not a good way to sell! Ford launched an ad campaign that was supposed to convey ‘Every car has a high-quality body.’ However, when translated, the slogan read, ‘Every car has a high-quality corpse’.

iv. Not surprisingly, Ford again, failed in Mexico when they launched Pinto to realize a tad too late that pinto meant ‘small male genitals’ in that country! No doubt, no one seemed to be proud of having a Pinto!

v. In yet another goof-up, Ford’s competitor General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, not being aware that ‘no va’ means ‘it won’t go!’

vi. Mercedes-Benz launched its car ‘Bensi’ in the Chinese market which translates to ‘rush to die.’ Now the Chinese were in no hurry, for sure!

When we look at the examples above, it seems car makers bear the brunt of most of the marketing blunders but there are others in every department. Looking back, it sounds almost untrue that some of the names of the products, especially for car models, would have passed the litmus test which normally brand names have to face before the launch!

After the Jolly Green Giant was launched by the General Mills in the Middle East, realisation dawned that when translated it meant Intimidating Green Ogre. Quite surely the customers must have got scared enough not to buy the product. On another hand, one could well imagine a long queue of curious onlookers when the American airlines, Braniff International Airways’ slogan ‘Fly in leather,’ to promote their business class seats, was translated into Spanish as ‘Fly naked’ (Vuela en cuero).

Their Italian neighbours launched a mineral water, now acquired by Coca Cola, not realizing that the word traficante meant a drug dealer in Spanish. The Italians got a taste of their own mistake when Schweppes Tonic Water was launched as Schweppes Toiler Water! Coke was not alone in creating gaffes.

When Pepsi started a marketing campaign in Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan ‘Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation’ came out as ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.’ Parker Pen, when expanding into Mexico, mistranslated ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’ into ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant!’ No doubt, the pens did not sell.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and Pepsodent learned it the hard way when it tried to promote its toothpaste in one of the Asian countries highlighting teeth whitening properties as a major USP not realizing that the locals chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth as it was considered attractive.

In retrospect, one wonders how companies selling oral care products would miss out such a simple habit of the locals! It must have been quite an amusement for Ikea’s English customers when they bought their new workbenches called fartfull so named as they offered fährt (speed) to highlight the desks’ wheels and the design features. Travellers to Germany would have sniggered reading road signs which proclaim Gute (good) Fahrt or Uber Fahrt. They were merely referring to the autobahns which were very good for speeds while a hair products brand, Clairol, introduced the “Mist Stick“, a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that mist means manure.

After Vicks introduced its cough drops on the German market, they were piqued to realise that the German pronunciation of ‘v’ is ‘f,’ which in German mean ‘sexual penetration!’ English shoppers in Germany should not get offended when they see the sign ‘Schmuck’ outside store windows as it is not an insult to the window shopper but simply means jewellery! A little bit of research would have helped Colgate had it checked the name of the toothpaste called Cue before it was launched in France.

They realized later that it was the name of a notorious pornographic magazine! When Coors launched its beer in Spain, little did they realize that their slogan ‘Turn it loose,’ would mean ‘Suffer from diarrhoea!’ There is something to do with Spanish, it seems. The English speaking simply don’t seem to get the Spanish nuance as it happened with The American Dairy Association’s hugely successful campaign ‘Got Milk?’ When they expanded the same to Mexico, they realized that the Spanish translation read ‘Are you lactating?’

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Swedish maker Electrolux, while doing a correct translation to ‘Nothing sucks like Electrolux,’ while promoting its vacuum power, did not realize the connotation of what ‘it sucks’ means in the USA and ended up as a marketing failure! One man’s meat is another man’s poison. When Gerber first started selling baby food products in Africa, the packaging they used was the same as the one used in USA -with a cute baby on the label. However to their bad luck, African companies routinely put pictures on the label of what is inside since many people are unable to read.

By very nature, translation would lead to some losses in communication and the brand manager must be prepared to look at his or her brand from the perspective of a local lens rather than superimposing the foreign brand.

There are many examples of successful companies aligning their brands to local flavours, colours, packaging, styles, and communication to ensure that they are adapted and adopted easily. The difficulty arises when the company is wedded to the brand and is unable to see the brand in the context of the country in which it is being launched. A compact SUV in a developed country may be a mid-size cheap car while it may carry an aspirational tag in a developing third world country. A McDonald’s is a place which travellers use while going from one city to another in the USA but it is a place for the family to eat, in India and many such countries.

A department store, which could be a convenience and low priced one in Europe, may be seen as place to ‘seen shopping’ in developing countries. In his book ‘Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages’ Guy Deutscher talks of how culture influences languages. Getting to understand the local culture, mores and norms are critical for a marketing professional before he or she drums up a logo or a catchy phrase.In his seminal book Primitive Culture, anthropologist Andrew Taylor defined culture as follows:

Taken in its wide ethnographic sense, [culture] is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

Language is the mirror which shows us the culture of the region in which it is developed. Many of the examples prove the point that it is important for businesses to recognize the often subtle yet critical differences in culture before expanding the geographic reach of a product or a brand.

There is the story of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, and master of several European tongues, who professed speaking ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.’ It is critical for marketers to realize that a universal language may not apply. The Swedish company Locum, realized it the hard way when during Christmas they decided to replace the ‘o’ in their name with a heart for the Christmas festivities. The result:

Lost in Translation- The World Of Advertising

When the staff at the African port of Stevadores saw the ‘internationally recognised’ symbol for ‘fragile’ they assumed it the box to be filled with broken glasses and threw them all into the sea! One can go on and on; suffice to say in conclusion that a rose by any other name, perhaps, does not smell as sweet!

A graduate of IIM Bangalore, Vikrant Pande’s day job is spearheading the TeamLease Skills University at Baroda. His keen desire to see his favourite Marathi books being read by a larger audience saw him translate Raja Ravi Varma by Ranjit Desai (Harper Perennial). He has since translated Shala by Milind Bokil, and is currently working on several other books. He is fluent in many languages including Marathi, Gujarati, Bangla, and a smattering of Tamil and Kannada.
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