When translations go wrong

August 21, 2014 by admin

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Translating – if it’s not done right – can be a risky business. As well as words that have multiple meanings, there are also cultural connotations with certain phrases that can have an adverse effect on the message you’re trying to communicate. This post is about what can happen when translations go wrong, sometimes spectacularly wrong.

Similarly, there’s the risk that your intended meaning will be lost if you attempt to directly translate from one language to another, as the task is rarely a simple case of swapping words from the mother tongue into its target equivalent, or vice-versa.

Investing in quality, proven translation services like Rosetta Translation in London shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury for businesses looking to expand overseas, it’s a necessity. Here are some examples of why this is the case and what can go wrong when you end up with a bad translation.

When translations go wrong: the manure stick

Personal care products supplier Clairol fell on the wrong side of the language barrier when trying to market one of its devices in Europe. In the UK, the company’s hair-curling iron – dubbed the ‘Mist Stick’ – enticed consumers with the promise of perfectly-styled locks thanks to special ‘vapour wand’ technology.

However, when bosses decided to use the same name for the tool in Germany, they obviously failed to consult a German translator first. ‘Mist’ is slang for ‘manure’ or ‘excrement’, which isn’t exactly an enticing picture to paint for budding beauty queens!

Similarly, this unfortunate translation also caught out the Irish whiskey liqueur Irish Mist. Understandably, there weren’t many Germans caught ordering this from their local bar.

Pregnant pens

In the 1930s, stationery maker Parker came up with groundbreaking technology that enabled businessmen to carry around their fountain pens in their shirt pockets without fear of them leaking and ruining what they were wearing.

Their ad campaign for the western world was “Avoid Embarrassment: Use Parker Pens” and was well received, prompting company leaders to expand into Latin America.

However, they quickly realised the error of their ways when attempting to directly translate the slogan into the native tongue of many countries in this part of the planet.

In Spanish, ’embarazar’ means ‘to embarrass’, but it also means ‘to impregnate’, so Parker’s tried and tested marketing campaign literally translated as “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. Oops!

The Chevy that was always doomed to fail

Another example of Spanish translation failures is the fate of the Chevrolet Nova in Latin markets.

General Motors (GM) had high hopes for the vehicle and were left scratching their heads when it sold extremely poorly overseas. However, the mystery was eventually solved when it was pointed out to them that the name of the product literally translated as ‘doesn’t go’.

While it’s purely coincidental that the direct translation actually made sense in the context of buying and selling an automobile, it’s unfortunate that the message actively discouraged consumers from investing in GM’s latest offering!

After realising the error of its ways, the organisation changed the name of the car to the Caribe and, sure enough, sales started to pick up.

All of the above are examples of why it’s not only important to do your research before launching into a foreign market, but also why the services of a good quality translator on your team should never be underestimated. Remember: when translations go wrong, so does your business.

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Taylor Wessing LLP

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