Lost in translation! 5 of the worst cultural blunders to learn from…and cringe at!

Posted: 11 Sep 2023

From government officials to household-name brands, it seems we could all do with a reminder on the importance of cultural awareness now and again…

Admit it. When it’s not happening to us, we love to see a real foot-in-mouth blunder from time to time. Whether it’s celebrities tripping on the red carpet or a newsreader stumbling over their words, it can be refreshing to know that everyone is capable of mistakes.

But when it comes to cultural blunders, we often act as though we should know better. And – while that is true, particularly when it comes to global brands or internationally renowned people – we are not born knowing the intricacies of other cultures. We have to learn them.

Understanding how other cultures differ goes far deeper than surface-level differences like food, music, climate or even language. Our culture impacts what we find funny, offensive, stimulating or sacred. Getting that wrong comes with pretty severe consequences.

Getting cultural awareness right can lead to global admiration and worldwide influence. Getting it wrong…well…we’re about to find out what that looks like. So, strap in. Read through your fingers if you must. Here are some of the worst cultural blunders of recent times.

Too little, too latte for Starbucks

Coffee giant, Starbucks, thought introducing its famous gingerbread latte to gingerbread-loving Germany would be a piece of cake. That was, of course, until they realised they had wrongly translated the name of the beverage. Not only did they translate the word gingerbread wrong, but – worse than that – it turns out their translation for the word ‘latte’ was a pretty rude term for an erection. Thankfully, the German market found this blunder hilarious (I mean, they have a point), so much so that Starbucks actually continued to use their…saucy version.

Yellow Pages left red faced

It’s not just mistranslated words that can land you in hot water. In Toronto, Canada, Yellow Pages published an advert that said “Find out if Bi Bim Bap tastes as good as it sounds”. The ad showcased an image of a bowl of noodles with chopsticks next to them when, actually, Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish…eaten with a spoon. A little bit of research wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

Brexit means Brexit…or does it?

The UK’s highly controversial move out of the European Union ruffled enough feathers as it was, but an embarrassing translation blunder was the cherry on top. When the UK government decided to translate the Brexit White Papers into 22 European languages (in a somewhat ironically inclusive gesture) they managed to mistranslate the word United Kingdom in Croatian. The documents used the outdated ‘Ujedinjeno Kraljevstvo’ in place of the currently used ‘Ujedinjena Kraljevina’. And, apparently, this was one of countless mistakes and errors. Not the best move when already in the dog house with the EU.

Too much information, Monsieur 

Keeping on the theme of politics, a Spanish delegate was giving a speech to a French delegation. He thought it wise to inform the crowd that he had a cold before proceeding with his speech, but his distracted French interpreter mistranslated his words as, “Excuse me, I’m constipated.” The audience erupted in laughter―as did the Spanish delegate, once he was informed of the mistake. Hopefully someone brought his interpreter a coffee before continuing!

Nike puts their foot in it

When it comes to cultural blunders, ones involving religion tend to take the top spots in outrage—rightly so. You’d think brands would avoid religion in their branding and marketing altogether, but some of the biggest companies in the world continue to make these same mistakes. Just look at Nike, which featured a flame-shaped logo on the bottom of the Nike Air Max 270 that resembled the Arabic word for “Allah”, meaning that the name was being stepped on by anyone who wore them. NOT the most culturally sensitive decision, we think you’ll agree.

For some of these lucky brands and people, their cultural blunders were taken lightly or even, in the case of Starbucks, successfully. For others, however, it has meant irreparable brand damage for certain people in certain parts of the world. Basically, it’s not something you want to take a chance with.

Thankfully, you don’t have to leave it to chance. These days, as we lead increasingly global lives, more and more brands and businesses are turning to cultural awareness training to ensure that they are thinking global, while speaking local.

At Comtec, we specialise in helping companies get to grips with culture in unparalleled detail, providing a range of services, from facilitating workshops around cross-cultural understanding to supporting with linguistic and cultural analysis of content to inform marketing communications and much more, so you are fully supported when navigating the challenges (and benefits!) culture presents.

We love sharing our knowledge and expertise on this, and many other language, culture, translation, and localisation-related subjects. Please do get in touch, our friendly team is always very happy to help.

Call us on +44 (0) 1926 335 681 or email info@comtectranslations.com.