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Lost in Translation

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Lost in Translation

Posted By Cathy Bennett

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As a global community, translation plays a big role in ensuring that countries unite, communicate and trade with one another, but what happens when things get lost in translation.

Knowing how to speak two languages is not the same thing as knowing how to translate. Translation is a special skill that professionals work hard to develop.

It is often thought that translation is easy. People often think that it’s just a matter of replacing each source word with the corresponding translated word. Unfortunately, translation is much more complicated than that.

Language is complex; there can be multiple ways of saying the same thing in another language, not to mention things like syntax, grammar, colloquialisms, making the potential for mistakes, huge.

This blog post takes a look at some of the biggest and sometimes funniest translation fails.

  1. Coca-Cola – In China Coca-Cola was translated as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” depending on the dialect. They eventually found the right Chinese characters that are phonetically close to the brand – “ko-kou-ko-le” – which means ‘happiness in the mouth’.
  2. Parker Pen – In Mexico they translated their slogan: “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” To “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. The company thought that the word “embarazar” (to impregnate) meant to embarrass.
  3. Pepsi – The Pepsi slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated in Taiwanese became, “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Which was not only something of bad horror movies but an insult.
  4. Kentucky Fried Chicken – In China, the KFC slogan “finger-lickin’ good” became “eat your fingers off”. Something that is considered uncivilised and rude in Chinese culture.
  5. American Airlines – When AA went to advertise their new leather seats they used the slogan, “Fly in Leather”, which they translated in Spanish for the market in Mexico as, “Fly naked”
  6. Schweppes – In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated into “Schweppes Toilet Water”.

Top Tips:

Companies should avoid literal translation as it can cause a whole host of confusion, not to mention a PR disaster.

  1. Don’t rely on a free online translation service for your business translation. While these tools can be useful to help you translate incoming data, they should never be used for outgoing data.
  2. Find a translator who is not only fluent in the foreign language, but someone who is a native speaker of that language to translate your marketing materials. A native speaker is less likely to make mistakes, which could impact your businesses reputation.
  3. Find a translator who is an expert in the foreign country’s culture and customs as well as language. They will avoid an offensive or inappropriate message. A phrase that is common and well known in your native language may be completely meaningless in a foreign language, or worse, it may have a negative connotation.
  4. Never assume that you can use the same translation for different countries, even if they speak the same language.

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