Business blunders: Famous translation mistakes

Language Faux Pas25 July 20144.1k

The rise of localized branding has made perfect translations more important than ever.

It is no longer acceptable to create a message in English and expect it to resonate with different target audiences, many of whom may not have a good grasp of the language. Moreover, simply translating word for word without failing to take cultural nuances into consideration will cause even more problems.

Firms do not want to create a killer campaign only to see it derailed by a small language error, as this could cause reputational damage that will take time and money to recover from. So let's look at some famous international marketing fails. 

One of the world's oldest brands and an automotive giant, Ford found itself out of its depth in Belgium – a country that has three official languages (Dutch, French and German) – after trying to launch its new model. It hoped to tell people that its new car had a high-quality body, but because of a translation mistake, ended up with the slogan 'Every car has a high-quality corpse'. Suffice to say this tagline didn't work too well and Ford was left to lick its wounds. 

Mead Johnson Nutritionals
English and Spanish are two of the most popular languages in the world, but when translating from one into the other, care must be exercised. Mead Johnson Nutritionals was left more than slightly embarrassed after instructions for use with two of its baby food products contained an error. The US Food and Drug Administration discovered that if unwitting Spanish-speaking people had followed the guidelines their kids were at risk of seizures, irregular heartbeats, renal failure and even death. Unsurprisingly this news was not received very well. 

Before the American brewer struck gold with its Damme Cold adverts featuring actor Jean Claude Van Damme, it had a little trouble with the use of slang. Its 'Turn it Loose' campaign did not translate into Spanish very well, as the tagline turned into 'Suffer from diarrhea'. This is obviously not going to create the kind of imagery that Coors had been aiming for, and unsurprisingly the campaign did not prove to be too successful. 

Deciding not to hire a professional business translator is a risky strategy, as hair company Clairol proved. When launching a new curling iron called the Mist Stick in Germany it ran into a problem. While the word mist was translated just fine, stick somehow became manure, which failed to generate the right kind of buzz. Women were never going to put anything near their hair that had the word manure in it. 

Braniff Airlines
This marketing fail dates back to 1987, when Braniff Airlines was keen to show off its new range of leather seats. However, while its tagline in English meant 'Fly in Leather', when translated into Spanish it became 'Fly Naked'. This was never likely to take off, in fact anyone who bought a ticket as a result of this campaign would have been left feeling severely let down when they arrived to take their seat!


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