5 Times Brands Got Translation Wrong—And What We Can Learn From Their Mistakes

While expanding globally is an exciting initiative for brands to undertake, it’s one that comes with many unique challenges. From varying regulations to staffing obstacles to cultural differences, every organization must do its due diligence prior to establishing a presence in a new international market if it wants to be successful.

Over time, some brands have learned the hard way that it’s not enough to simply mimic their strategy for English-speaking markets in another language when expanding globally. From KFC to Mercedes Benz, many massive multinational brands have endured their fair share of embarrassment due to poor translations and failure to properly consider localization.

Here are some examples of brands getting translation wrong, and key learnings we can take away from their experiences.

1. Make sure the message is consistent

Brands need to be cognizant of how everything from their brand name to their slogan to their product copy sounds when translated into another language. One might expect that large brands know this, but in the case of one multinational bank, not being diligent about translations cost them millions of dollars.

In 2009, HSBC announced it would undergo a $10 million dollar rebrand after its latest campaign, which was intended to encourage its customers to take more action with their money, failed spectacularly. This is because its slogan of “Assume Nothing” ended up translating in several other languages as “Do Nothing” – the exact opposite of what the bank was going for. 

This mistake demonstrates that literal translation of slogans and other key phrases are rarely sufficient for proper localization in new markets. 

2. Recognize the phrases that translate poorly

As the first Western restaurant chain to open a location in China, KFC had a number of obstacles to overcome. One such issue was the mistranslation of its classic slogan, “Finger Lickin’ Good.” It’s probably not surprising that there’s no direct translation of that phrase into Chinese, but what is surprising—and a tad disturbing—is what it got translated into: “Eat Your Fingers Off.”

It’s hard to imagine how such a gaffe made it all the way to signage and advertisements. One has to think that, if someone fluent in Chinese had been consulted along the way, they would have pointed out that the translated slogan isn’t especially appetizing. 

The lesson: when translating something as important as your slogan, make sure to get the opinion of a native speaker—if not multiple.

3. Know how it sounds—literally

When Braniff, a now defunct airline, launched an international campaign promoting its leather seats, they ran into trouble when advertising to Spanish speaking audiences. While their advertisement correctly translated the phrase “in leather” to the Spanish “en cuero,” they had failed to consider how it sounded when spoken aloud. “En cuero,” as it happens, sounds the same as “en cueros,” which is Spanish for ‘naked.’ As a result, the airline’s Spanish-language television and radio ads sounded like they were instructing audiences to fly naked rather than ‘in leather.’

Surely if the brand had tested their translated ad copy with Spanish-speaking audiences, they would have gotten feedback that could have saved them quite a bit of grief. However, once the ads were launched, they stuck with the wording, with the campaign developer saying that the obvious interpretation wasn’t necessarily a negative thing. While that reasoning has a point—who is going to forget when a commercial tells them to fly in their birthday suit?–it risks coming across as insensitive to Spanish-speaking audiences, who would expect an international company to do its due diligence when appealing to global audiences.

The lesson: make sure to test your brand messaging not only on paper, but also aloud.

4. Consider the meaning of your brand name

What works as your brand name in one language doesn’t necessarily sound great in another. When the Iranian company, Paxan, wanted to sell its detergent to English-speaking audiences, it didn’t adapt its brand name. This may not sound like a problem: after all, companies like Nike and Google have no problem selling internationally under the same name. The only problem is that this particular line of detergents is named “Barf.”

While “barf” actually means “snow” in Farsi, it definitely doesn’t have that meaning to English-speaking audiences, who of course associate the word barf with vomit. Washing one’s clothes in vomit doesn’t sound especially appealing, which is probably one reason that English-speaking audiences don’t see Barf on their shelves anymore.

The takeaway: proper localization should take into account informal terms and slang.

5. Don’t fall victim to false friends

Just because a translation sounds like it should work doesn’t mean that it will, as The Parker Pen Company learned while promoting its Quink pen ink to Mexican audiences. Believing the Spanish word “embarazar” to be the equivalent of the similar sounding English word “embarrassed,” the company thought it was telling Mexican audiences that their ink won’t spill in their pockets and embarrass them.

The problem? “Embarazar” doesn’t mean embarrassed—it’s a “false friend” of the term, meaning that it sounds similar but has an entirely different meaning. Rather than meaning ‘to be embarrassed,’ embarazar actually means ‘to impregnate.’

So while it’s also true that Quink ink won’t spill in your pocket and get you pregnant, this is a rather odd selling point for a brand of ink.

The lesson: follow the advice in HSBC’s aforementioned intended slogan, and Assume Nothing when it comes to translation—even if it sounds like it should work.

Getting Translation Right

One of the key learnings we can take away from these gaffes is that proper translation is about more than simply determining the literal translation of a word to another language. Every language has its own unique characteristics, and due to cultural differences, where that language is spoken also matters. Those who fail to take into account matters like pronunciation, idioms, slang, and cultural significance of a word or phrase will almost certainly find themselves in a similarly unfortunate situation as these brands.

If your organization is looking for a reliable, high quality translation resource to support global expansion or other initiatives, contact Language I/O to learn how our machine translation software can take your customer support representatives from mono- to multilingual in 24 hours.