Friday, October 26, 2012

The Worst Translations In Business

Yesterday we talked about copywriters, and today we're looking at selling your products abroad with some of our favourite examples of translation.

Does anyone remember the cleaning product Jif? If you don't, thank god you have your youth. Everyone else probably remembers it as the old name of Cif. A team of highly-skilled marketers had a few too many coffees and decided that Spaniards, amongst others, were not to fond of trying to say the word. However, listeners were happy to no longer be covered in spit.

The once-famous Marathon bar (at least in the UK and Ireland) was renamed Snickers because the word was more globally recognisable. You can't always just rename your products to be international, so sometimes individual names are required for languages or regions.

Snickers or Marathon... who cares? It's delicious!

You have to consider regional differences. Coca-Cola famously introduced an advert into an Arabic-speaking region with no text, just icons of a sad face, some Coca-Cola, and then a happy face. Obviously, the intended message was that "Coca-Cola makes you happy". However, they didn't think about the fact that Arabic reads right to left, which left the ad being read as happy face, Coca-Cola, and sad face. The ad was a resounding failure.

Colloquialisms are fantastic stumbling blocks for marketers as well. "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" wasn't the best tagline for the Swedish vacuum manufacturer to place in advertisements in the United States. General Motors' Nova never did well in Latin America either, due to sounding like "no va", as in "doesn't go" in Spanish.

Toyota failed with their MR2 in France since the name in French sounds similar to "merde", meaning shit. The car did poorly, but Toyota are probably more concerned about recalls at the moment.

In the 1960s, "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" was wrongly translated as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave" for Chinese adverts. This was much to the delight of Coca-Cola... until they managed to name their product "Bite the wax tadpole" and "female horse stuffed with wax". They eventually worked on it and came up with "happiness in the mouth" after researching thousands of Chinese characters.

Is Pepsi okay? Uhm... maybe not.

With globalisation these errors are becoming less and less common as businesses become more aware of cultural differences. Nevertheless, sites like are a fine example that not everyone is paying for the professional assistant they require... and if they are, they're being ripped off!

If you're dining in a restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, please try the "sawdust" as we'd love to know what it is! We didn't have the cojones to try it last time!

Before anyone complains, we know that some of these examples aren't necessarily true, but we bet you enjoyed them anyway! Many of them feature frequently in marketing textbooks so they're clearly of educational merit... we suppose.


  1. For your collection: I just bought a purse (made in China), and the care label reads: "please use detract graim agent of leather protecing and scouring its surface". WTF? Guess I'll just have to use my old, run-of-the-mill common sense to care adequately for my new purse... Being a humble translator of English-Spanish, without the merest knowledge of Chinese, I cannot for the life of me imagine what they meant. :)

  2. I really liked your Information. Keep up the good work. Business Arabic translator