Lost in Translation: 16 of the Biggest Translation Fails

Global expansion is no longer just a consideration for most businesses but rather a necessity.

Businesses from Australia to Japan and England to the US are all looking for a larger market share, more customers and higher revenue. More times than not, that usually means expanding beyond your current market. Global growth requires taking into account multiple factors, such as the market’s local needs, preferences and expectations.

Translation is one consideration of many that can make or break a business when expanding globally. A good translation allows for a seamless transition, while bad translations can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation. In this article, we’ll explore 16 real-life examples of translations gone bad, how they were resolved and how to avoid these mistakes in your own business.

What makes a translation bad?

While translation isn’t an exact science, there are key factors to consider that can determine whether a translation is good or bad.

A bad translation typically falls into one of these translation traps:

  • Fails to accurately express the meaning of the original text
  • Strays away from the tone or style of the original text
  • Contains grammar, spelling or punctuation errors in the target language
  • Incorporates outdated or inappropriate terminology
  • Sounds unnatural or awkward in the target language

The Impact of Bad Translation

A poor translation can have many negative effects on a business, such as:

A confused or offended audience

If a translation has negative connotations in the target language, customers can be put off the brand or business. The poor translation might even turn into a negative perception of the business.

A loss in sales or potential opportunities

A bad translation can be associated with a lack of care or professionalism on behalf of the business. This could lead to a loss of potential customers who may prefer taking their business to a competitor that has put in the effort to ensure their translations are up to par.

Additional costs to fix the error

Most times, when a translation has gone wrong, the business needs to fix the mistake, investing more money and time into something that should’ve been done and dusted. For products, this could also mean pulling the product off the shelf and reproducing it with the correct translation which could lead to a loss in product as well as time.

Legal liabilities

In some cases, translation errors can lead to legal liabilities, such as an offended group filing a lawsuit claiming damages. Companies can end up paying a high price for an error that could’ve been easily avoided.

16 Real-Life Translation Errors

Translation mistakes can happen in a range of industries and fields. From marketing campaigns, video games, product names, and instruction manuals, there are plenty of places where a bad translation can be found. We’ll explore a range of blunders, from those that sound like a botched Google Translate job to those that were just a misunderstanding of local cultures and traditions.

After all, translation is so much more than just using the right words, but rather having an understanding of the country, its people and its traditions. In all the translation mistakes though, we see a company that probably would’ve rather invested just that little bit more for a professional translator or language service provider with a fail-proof method that involves humans, rather than machine translation.

“Pepsi Generation” brings your ancestors back from the grave

In the 1960s, Pepsi’s slogan, “Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation,” landed in China with very negative reactions. This slogan for the advertising campaign had been inadvertently translated to “Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead,” which didn’t go over very well with the local audience.

Taking “Got Milk?” too far

The American Dairy Association’s iconic “Got Milk?” campaign, which was incredibly successful in its native language, among English speakers, found some challenges when it was eventually taken to Mexico. The literal Spanish translation for “Got Milk?” reads as “Are you lactating?” which is definitely not the message that they were trying to convey. Luckily, they found the translation mistake early and quickly changed the messaging.

Parker Pen won’t get you pregnant

Assumptions in language can sometimes lead to the worst translation fails, or the best, depending on how you look at it. When Parker Pen expanded into Mexico, their slogan which usually reads as “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you,” was mistranslated into “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” The verb “to embarrass” was mistaken for “embarazar” a false cognate in Spanish, which actually means to be pregnant.

“Do Nothing” with HSBC Bank

In 2009, HSBC launched a campaign with the tagline “Assume Nothing.” However, when they launched the campaign in non-English speaking countries, it turned out to be too complex of a phrase for the usual translation process and was mistakenly translated into “Do Nothing” in several different countries, causing massive problems which the bank reportedly spent 10 million dollars to replace the problematic tagline with “The World’s Private Bank.” Marketing messages are some of the most complex to translate because of the creative aspect ingrained in them. Simple phrases are best for an easy translation, otherwise, transcreation might be a better option to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

“FARTFULL” at IKEA

Swedish brand IKEA is known for their unique product names. Instead of using product codes to label the products, they opted for Swedish names that illustrated a key feature of the product. For non-Swedish speakers, the names are just words that sound cool, that is until the FARTFULL workbench came along. Fartfull’s root word, FAHRT, which means “travelling in a vehicle with wheels,” made sense in Sweden, but the English association with flatulence was not well-received in the United Kingdom. The product was eventually taken off the market after people worldwide had a good laugh. A good lesson for global brands to always consider the local language when putting products out in foreign markets.

ikea website workbench with wheels

Source: Facebook | Talk Lingo

Loose Bowels with Coors

American beer company Coors decided to use a slang slogan for one of their campaigns which unfortunately got a lot of unwanted attention. The beer maker’s “Turn it loose” campaign took to Spain and they didn’t do their due diligence in the translation process to check if it would resonate with customers. The tagline translated into Spanish used an expression that’s commonly interpreted as “suffer from diarrhea,” which got a lot of attention from the local market, just not the right kind of attention.

Laundry Soap Encourages Hurling

Paxam, an Iranian company, expanded into English-speaking countries with its laundry soap. They referred to the product as “Snow” in their Farsi marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, they went with a phonetic translation which had the labels reading “Barf.” I’m sure that’s not the impression they wanted to leave with foreign markets.

Save Money with XBOX

When Microsoft released the XBOX gaming console in Germany, they made the mistake of not translating their store listings and other auxiliary materials correctly. This left them with a slew of translation errors that caused a stir in the German gaming community. The most noteworthy mistranslation was the term “Save” (as in storing something) being mistranslated as “Save Money.”

A Bright Future with Orange

Not all translation errors are about the words themselves. Sometimes it’s an error in localisation and a lack of cultural awareness for a specific country or region. This was the case for Orange, a UK telecom company, that launched a new campaign in 1994 with the slogan “The future’s bright… the future’s Orange.” While the tagline seems simple, it didn’t go over well in Northern Ireland, where the colour orange represents the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organisation. The slogan implied that the future is Protestant. In a country that’s mostly Catholic, this was problematic for the target audience.

Before it was Honda Jazz

In 2001, Honda introduced their latest car, the Fitta to the Nordic countries. They were in the process of launching and had produced all their marketing collateral when someone within Honda discovered that the word “Fitta” is a vulgar word that refers to female genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The ad for the car didn’t help either, describing the car as “small on the outside, but large on the inside.” It was too late to save the expense of the wasted marketing material but fortunately early enough to not do damage to the Honda brand as the car hadn’t publicly launched yet. The Honda Fitta was renamed to Honda Jazz in Europe, parts of Asia and Australia. It was renamed to Honda Fit in the US and China.

Bite the Wax Tadpole in China

In the 1920s, when Coca-Cola was first translated phonetically for the Chinese market, the phrase read as “Ke-kou-ke-la.” When translated the phrase meant “bite the wax tadpole,” which doesn’t sound very appetising for a soft drinks brand. Coke then modified the translation to “Kokou Kole,” which translates as “happiness in the mouth.” Much more appropriate!

Eat Your Fingers Off at KFC

The Chinese market seems to be at the receiving end of bad translations quite a bit. Another brand that had to quickly do damage control in China is KFC. When they first launched in the market in the 1980s, their famous tagline, “Finger Lickin’ Good,” was translated to “Eat Your Fingers Off.” Not a very appetising message for a fast-food chain. Fortunately, the mistake didn’t scare off too many customers. By 2011, KFC made up about 40% of the fast-food industry in China.

Amazon Making Headlines with Mistranslations

In 2020, Amazon launched in Sweden. Unfortunately for them, instead of getting positive PR for their launch, they were left with a mess of criticism for multiple major translation errors, including mistaking the Argentinian flag for the Swedish flag and using automatic translations for listings from other European branches of the retailer. This led to mistranslated product descriptions that ranged from hilarious to obscene.

Nintendo Switch games were listed as suitable for the Nintendo Circuit Breaker. A collection of Second World War-Era Russian Infantry figurines was wrongly translated to “Russian Toddlers.” Items featuring cats were hit the hardest though with one T-shirt with a cat on it being labelled with a vulgar Swedish term for female genitals.

When Vicks went Dirty

Vicks, the popular cough medicine, ran into a little trouble when Proctor & Gamble introduced it to the German market. The letter “V” is pronounced as “F” in Germany, making the brand name sound like an English expletive. The name “Wicks” was considered at first but that was a homophone of another German slang word. The company eventually decided on the name “Wick” for German-speaking markets.

Mercedes Benz Rushes to Die

Chinese translation seems to be a sore spot with a lot of huge companies, including Mercedes Benz. The language has a large number of identically sounding characters making it easy to make a mistake that could change the meaning of your name completely, which is exactly what happened with Mercedes Benz when it first launched in the Chinese market in 2009. The first translation of their name meant “rush to die,” which isn’t the message you want associated with a car. The name was changed to a phrase that meant “to run quickly (as if flying)” which is more fitting.

Coca-Cola Greets Death

Sometimes trying too hard to localise your marketing messages can end up in a failure of epic proportions, especially when working with rare target languages. It happened to Coca-Cola in 2018 when they tried to mix 2 languages from New Zealand, English and te reo Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous language.

Coca-Cola advertised “Kia ora, Mate” on a vending machine in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the combination translates into the native language as “Hello, Death.” Definitely not what Coca-Cola wanted to promote. The error sparked a wave of outrage online with people tweeting messages like, “The Coca-Cola company gains self-awareness?” and “Totally spot on it does mean death for a lot of Indigenous people” in reply to Coca-Cola’s translation gaffe.”

The incident probably won’t cause too much damage for huge companies like Coca-Cola but could wreak havoc and generate massive expenses for smaller companies.

Getting Translation Right

Translation is so much more than just translating words from one language to another. There’s a lot to consider when expanding to foreign markets beyond just the local language. There are cultural nuances, religious beliefs, and political and economic ideologies that might need to be considered.

Opting for professional translation services that will do their market research is essential to help understand the culture of a country and make your brand relevant to the audience. It can also help ensure that you have accurate translations that will resonate with the locals, rather than having them in stitches laughing over the latest translation blunder in your advertising campaign. Choosing the right translation partner ensures that your brand, marketing campaigns, and products are accurately represented in different languages.

At LEXIGO, we use professional human translators who are assisted by AI to help speed up the translation process without the hiccups of mistranslations. We also have Community Liaison Officers who are entrenched within diverse communities and can advise on localisation for each market. Our tools and services can help any brand reach its preferred audience in the right way. Next time you’re on the lookout for translation, let us know and don’t let your brand become the next “lost in translation” story!