Five big brand translation and localization mistakes that every business can learn from

The translation and localization of documentation has huge potential for missteps. From poor grammar and clumsy phrasing to nonsensical text or the inadvertent use of swearwords, companies have been getting translation wrong for centuries. Translation fails can quickly go viral, so companies that want to ensure their brand is known for only the right reasons often now buy in translation services to work on their documents.

Big brand translation fails

It seems that no company is immune to bad translation, no matter how big they are. Household names from Starbucks to Apple to HSBC have all had their moment in the spotlight thanks to poor localization and translation services. Here, we look at five of the most entertaining mistakes, with a view to ensuring that they aren’t replicated in future.

Lost in translation

Apple is known across much of the world for its slick design and luxury technology products. However, the company hasn’t always got it right. Back in the early 1980s, Apple was still testing the water when it came to computer products. It launched the Apple II in the US and Europe. However, nobody thought to include umlauts, cedillas, accents or other special characters on the keyboard. Naturally, the Apple II did not fare well in Europe.

A thirst for decent translation services

For some reason, drinks companies seem to struggle to get their messages across to overseas audiences. Schweppes had issues when it tried to sell its tonic water in Italy, thanks to an English to Italian translation fail – the resulting ‘toilet water’ did not sell well.

Coors also struggled as a result of its English to Spanish strapline translation. When ‘turn it loose’ became ‘suffer from diarrhea,’ sales figures for some reason failed to hit the anticipated targets.

Pepsi’s classic English to Chinese translation fail is another classic. The ‘Come alive with the Pepsi generation’ campaign was well received by English-speaking audiences. However, the Chinese version, which promised that ‘Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead’ was not such a hit.

Perhaps the most entertaining drinks company translation blunder has to be courtesy of Starbucks. ‘Latte’ means milk in Italian and has been used by Starbucks around the world to describe its staple milky coffee drink. However, the same word is German is a slang term for an erection. Thankfully, German coffee drinkers took the mistake in good grace, greeting it with amusement rather than offence.

The $10 million rebrand

While Starbucks may have inadvertently amused German customers, at least its mistake did not cost the company, unlike that made by HSBC bank. Its marketing translation error is estimated to have cost the bank around $10 million after it triggered a rebrand.

The issue arose as a result of the company’s ‘Assume nothing’ tagline. The world’s sixth largest wealth manager, the bank was looking to cement its global reputation for innovation. However, a translation to ‘Do nothing’ meant that the tagline did little to promote confidence in the bank in numerous countries around the world – hence a rapid and costly rebrand.

Translation protests

Nintendo has also suffered potential financial damage as a result of its approach to translation. It certainly garnered some reputational damage, with Pokemon fans in Hong Kong taking to the streets in protest.

The issue centered around the Pokemon character Pikachu – the cute little yellow one with the ears. Since the 1995 release of the original Pokemon games and cartoons, Pikachu has been translated as Pi-ka-qiu in Mandarin and as Bei-kaa-chiu in Cantonese.

However, a change in policy in 2016 saw the Mandarin version of the name adopted for Cantonese-language versions of the game. In Hong Kong, where Cantonese speakers can be particularly sensitive to the way that their language is gradually being eroded in favor of Mandarin, the translation was a step too far, with protestors heading to the Japanese consulate to broadcast their feelings on the matter.

Personal questions

It was English to Spanish translation that stumped the American Dairy Association. The simplicity of its ‘Got milk?’ campaign in the US had seen great success, which the company wanted to replicate south of the border. As such, it took the question to Latin America. Sadly, the translation/localization fail meant that the American Dairy Association was asking a far more personal question. Instead of prompting Mexican citizens to ponder whether or not they needed to buy milk, it asked if there were lactating. Hardly the company’s intention and certainly not a good way to entice people to buy their milk products!

Business translation services

While amusing, these translation mistakes cost those making them in terms of both their finances and their reputation. Translation is a highly skilled profession and good quality translation can’t be rushed – the imperfections of machine translation have certainly shown us that. 

For small companies, there is much to learn from these big brands’ translation missteps. Attention to detail is clearly absolutely key when it comes to marketing translation. Businesses that want to connect with audiences overseas need to be sure that they have used natives of the relevant countries to translate their documents. They also need to use localization services – which look out for slang, cultural references and other potential gaffes – in order to ensure that everything is in order. It never pays to make assumptions in this area of work!

The spread of the internet means that companies now have easy access to translation agencies that can work on their documents professionally and efficiently. These translation services provide everything from certified translation to urgent translation, in a wide range of languages and with specialist skills available for areas of work like legal translation or marketing translation. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to get translation right from the outset – and to avoid making the kind of mistakes that these huge brands have done!

Author Bio

Louise Taylor is a freelance writer with a passion for languages. She works for the Tomedes translation agency as their head of English content, writing about anything and everything that tickles her linguistic fancy.

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