keyboard_arrow_left Ridiculous translation errors that cost millions of dollars (and why you should use a translation company for better business) keyboard_arrow_right

March 1, 2020

 Embarrassing mistakes are really not that big a deal when you make them with your friends. But sometimes, businesses with a budget of millions or billions of dollars get sloppy with second languages. Here are some of the translation errors over the years that caused disastrous results. Some of these are classic examples highlighting the need for a competent translation company to ensure that you are presenting culture-appropriate and accurate translations every time.

1.     HSBC Holdings

UK-based HSBC Holdings had been running the “Assume Nothing” campaign for five years starting in 2004. But in 2009, it had to pull the campaign out and spent millions of dollars to do so. HSBC is a private bank with global operations. When it decided to bring its “Assume Nothing” campaign to overseas markets, the company failed to check how their tagline would translate into other languages. The error occurred when many countries translated “Assume Nothing” to “Do Nothing”, which is contradictory to the campaign’s goal of urging people to use the bank’s services. The error caused the bank to spend $10 million to produce a re-branding campaign, using “The world’s private bank” as their new tagline. 

2.     Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)

When KFC entered China in the 1980s, it failed to oversee the translation of its famous slogan, “Finger-lickin’ good.” In Beijing, the slogan was translated into ‘Eat your fingers off,’ which is not very flattering and appetizing to a famous fried chicken dish. It’s a good thing that it was noticed very early, allowing the fried chicken franchise to correct the translation. The mistranslation did not do much damage to the company, but they learned their lesson to be careful of translations when launching their products in other countries. Today, it’s the top quick-service restaurant in China, operating in over 850 cities.

3.    Pampers

Learning about the culture of the new market is something that should be considered during the strategic marketing planning session. It can be said that ‘ignorance excuses no one.’ Proctor & Gamble was in hot waters when they introduced Pampers brand of diapers in Japan. The brand’s packaging showed a stork carrying a baby with its beak, supposedly to deliver it. It was commonly used in the United States as a symbol of having a baby soon, popularized by a story of Hans Christian Andersen. But it was not the case for Japanese parents. When the company finally did their research, they found out that the Japanese were hesitant to buy the diapers because the association of a baby with a stork is not part of the folklore of the Japanese. In Japan, babies were delivered to parents by huge peaches floating in the river.

4.     Mercedes Benz

Global car manufacturer Mercedes Benz, which is based in Germany, had some trouble when it entered China. When the brand name was translated into Chinese, its name was written as Bensi. However, the name means Rush to die in Chinese. It is not a flattering or even a good name for a car. Mercedes Benz had to make some changes and had the name re-branded to Benchi. This time the name meant run quickly as if flying, which is more fitting for a car with a solid performance.

5.     American Motors

It is not only slogans that are prone to mistranslations when used in other countries. American Motors found out about it when they launched their midsize car in Puerto Rico. The car was called Matador, which was introduced in Puerto Rico in the early part of the 1970s. Unknown to American Motors, the word matador translates to killer in Spanish. It’s difficult to market a car that can be a potential killer when used on the roads.

6.   Pepsodent

Pepsodent is a toothpaste brand and one of its advertising slogans was, ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!’ The slogan resonates in cultures that look at white teeth as a sign of good health and good grooming. However, when Pepsodent entered the Southeast Asian market using the same ad campaign, the brand failed. The reason is that in many of the regions in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and some parts of the Philippines, it is a tradition among members of different tribes to blacken their teeth because they believe that it enhances their sex appeal. It is not a case of mistranslation, but a lack of research and preparation for product and brand localization. Pepsodent had to pull out of the Southeast Asian market for this reason.

7.     Coors

The American beer brand, Coors launched its campaign in Spain, using the same campaign they ran in the U.S. that carries a slang tagline, ‘Turn It Loose.’ Since slang used in one country does not often translate well in other languages, the company should have exercised caution when using it. When it was translated into Spanish, “Turn It Loose” became ‘Suffer from diarrhea.’ The mistranslation caused revenue losses for the company.

8.     Vicks

Vicks is known in many parts of the world for its vapor rub product. It has other products for colds and coughs, including the Vicks Cough Drops. When it introduced the cough drops into the German market, the company forgot that the letter V is pronounced as F in the German language. They only noticed if after the product’s release. Thus the brand, when pronounced in Germany sounds like a sexual expletive. To rectify the situation, Vicks had to rename their product as Wicks for all markets where German is spoken.

9.     Electrolux

Electrolux is a successful manufacturer of home appliances from Sweden. Its products are available worldwide. In many countries, it was able to get away using English for their marketing and advertising campaigns. However, it was taken out of its comfort zone when it launched an ad campaign for its vacuum cleaner with the tagline, ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’  in the United States, where English is spoken by the majority of the population. The tagline is grammatically correct, by the Scandinavian company failed to understand that the term sucks has a different connotation. When used idiomatically, saying something sucks means something is bad or you dislike something.

10.     Perdue Farm

The first advertising commercial of Perdue Farms featured the CEO himself, Frank Perdue. The advertising agency came up with a witty slogan, ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.’ Perdue Farms started in 1920 as a family owned corporation. The brand is very popular in the United States. The company developed their special feeds that used marigold blossoms as one of the ingredients. The flowers made the chicken’s skins golden yellow in appearance. The advertising campaign was very successful and they decided to enter the Spanish market. The success of the campaign and the brand was not replicated though because of translation errors. In Spanish, the tagline translated into something sexual. The translation read as, ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.‘

11.     Ford

Ford is a giant in the automotive industry, which started operations early in the 1900s. It has subsidiaries worldwide. You would think that they would be very successful in launching in foreign markets. In Belgium, the company was aiming to give focus to its excellent manufacturing capabilities. Ford did not localize its ad campaign; using the same campaign slogan, ‘Every car has a high-quality body.’ Of course, English speakers understand that the “body” mentioned in the slogan is the body of the car. However, when translated into Dutch, it became, ‘Every car has a high-quality corpse.’ Oops, who would buy a car with a corpse, even if it is of high quality?

There are instances when it is difficult to translate advertising slogans from one language to another, simply because some of the slogans are effective in the native language but means differently or difficult to explain in another language.

What is the takeaway from all these translation errors in the past? It’s vital to work with professional translation or transcription company. Likewise, it is essential to plan for internationalization, localization and transcreation – language service processes to make your brand global.

Avoid translation errors – Partner with a professional translation company. 

Mistakes in translation can be effectively avoided by working with a professional translation company. VocalScript works with human translators who are native speakers. This ensures that you get accurate translation whether your project is big or small. We offer a full suite of language services so you do not have to look for other service providers. We help businesses with their global communication needs, from translation, localization and transcreation to all types of interpreting services. Ensure that your messages are communicated properly and effectively in more than 100 languages with VocalScript. We are open 24/7, every day of the year so you can get in touch with us anytime, wherever you are located by calling +234-705-6910-392 or sending us an email at Contact us.