Multi-Million Dollar Translation Blunders From Major Corporations

With faster and more accessible communication, transportation and monetary flows, the world is rapidly shrinking. Brands or products originating from one country – Fendi handbags, S.T. Dupont lighters, German automobiles, Japanese sushi, Scotch whiskey – are finding enthusiastic acceptance in others.

Brands operate on a global scale. When designing global marketing strategies, companies must understand how culture affects consumer reactions in each of its international markets. In turn, they must also understand how their strategies affect culture.

Corporations typically do a ton of research before entering new markets. This leads chains like McDonald’s and Domino’s to completely revamp their menus for consumers across Europe, Asia and other foreign marketplaces.

Even so, sometimes oversights occur – like making sure the company’s current slogan translates well abroad.

While some of these miscalculations are rather humorous, errors in translation can also be very embarrassing and costly. In fact, so much so that translation errors are the cause of the greatest number of blunders in international business. Just because a company dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to international advertising doesn’t mean that it uses competent translators:

Pepsi’s Taiwanese Scare
Pepsi spooked its consumers in Taiwan when it didn’t realize its “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” slogan was translated as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”


McDonalds’ French Fiasco
Thanks to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction we all know that a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called a Royale with cheese in France. But what many might not know is that the Big Mac was supposed to be launched as “Gros Mec.” The word “mec” in French doesn’t just mean “fellow” or “buddy” as “mac” does in English – iInstead, it refers to a pimp. So Gros Mec can actuallybe translated to mean “big pimp.”


Coors’ Spanish Blunder
Coors’ “Turn it loose!” slogan took on a foul new meaning in Spain, where it loosely translated to “You will suffer from diarrhea.”


Perdue Chicken’s Suggestive Commercial
When Frank Perdue’s chicken campaign aired in Spanish markets, its tagline got terribly distorted from “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” to “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate”


Schweppes’ Italian Incident
A Schweppes Tonic Water campaign went down the drain when the company tried to sell Italian consumers “Schweppes Toilet Water” instead.


KFC’s Chinese Caper
KFC’s “finger-lickin’ good” slogan is used all over the world to highlight the tastiness of the product. However, when the phrase was translated into Chinese for the Hong Kong market, it came out as “eat your fingers off.”


Parker Pens Embarrassment
Parker Pens wanted Spanish-speaking consumers to know its product wouldn’t cause embarrassing pocket ink stains and came out with ads intended to read ‘”It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Instead, the ad stated ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you.’ The company had managed to confuse ‘embarrass’ with the Spanish verb ‘embrazar’ or ‘to impregnate’.


American Diary Association’s Spanish Sour Milk
Though the “Got Milk?” campaign was incredibly successful among native English-speakers in the U.S., Spanish-speaking Latinos wondered why the American Dairy Association would translate their winning slogan literally to “Are you lactating?”


Vicks’ German Obscenities
When Vicks, the vapour-rub manufacturer, decided to launch its products in Germany they failed to gain any traction. The problem was that the “V” is pronounced as an “F” in German, meaning Vicks sounds like the German equivalent of the “f” word.


Automotive Stalls
Automotive manufacturers are notorious for translation problems in their advertising. When General Motors reviewed their sales figures for its Chevy Nova in Latin America, the automotive giant was perplexed. Until, that is, someone pointed out that ‘Nova’ means ‘It doesn’t go’ in Spanish. Then there was Toyota’s Fiera car proved controversial in Puerto Rico, where ‘fiera’ translates to ‘ugly old woman’. Likewise few Germans were enthusiastic about owning Rolls-Royce’s ‘Silver Animal Droppings’ car, which to the English speaking world was anointed the more romantic name ‘Silver Mist’.


We only highlighted a few examples from Matt Haig’s fantastic book, Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time, you can see just how easy it is for words and slogans to get completely lost in translation.

These mistakes, while hilarious in hindsight, can add up to serious consequences. The U.S. Committee on Economic Development (CED) suggests that American businesses lose more than $2 billion a year to language or cultural misunderstandings.

Something even more amazing than that – fixing these blunders does not require a mastery level in any of the languages. In each of these instances, even an intermediate level speaker could have prevented these gaffes from taking place. Companies could have saved millions in dollars, and significant time and resources. Not to mention allowed themselves to build relationships in these new markets, rather than alienating them.