How To Bounce Back From Bad Translations

We’ve all spotted them! Translation mistakes that have slipped through the net and created embarrassment for the companies or brands they’re associated with. A bad translation can cause a lot of damage and companies can take time to recover from them both financially and in terms of reputation.

Common mistranslation blunders

Avoiding making translation mistakes in the first place is obviously the best policy, therefore knowing where these might occur can help you ensure that your translations are error free. Here we look at some common translation mistakes made by some very well known brands. We all learn from our mistakes, but in this case let’s avoid making any ourselves, and learn from other people’s!

Translation mistake #1: literal translations

When Pepsi translated their strapline “Pepsi brings you back to life” into Mandarin, the result was “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Although this might raise a chuckle here, it was perceived as extremely insensitive in China and cost the company both in reputation and financially: point of sale banners, signage and advertising all had to be reprinted.

There are numerous examples of literal translations that have backfired on the brands who forgot to check their meanings, here are just a few:

  • Jolly Green Giant: “The Jolly Green Giant”, translation: “Intimidating Green Monster” in Arabic.
  • The American Dairy Association: “Got Milk”, translation: “Are You Lactating?” in Spanish.
  • Parker Pens: “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”, translation: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” in Spanish.

The lesson here is to use an experienced linguist with detailed knowledge of the language. Different dialects can also have an effect on a translation; Coca-Cola, or Ke-Kou-Ke-La in Mandarin can either mean “female horse stuffed with wax” or “bite the wax tadpole” depending on the dialect.

Translation mistake #2: cultural difference

As well as problems with literal translations, there are also cultural differences that can cause particular issues. Often, it’s the brand or product name that has different connotations in different markets. For example:

  • Puffs tissues didn’t realise that in German “puff” is a colloquial name for a brothel.
  • Clairol’s “Mist Stick” translates in German as a “Manure Stick”, mist being slang for manure.

Cultural values are also significant: any company considering translating existing material from one language to another must be aware that what’s viewed as appropriate in one country is not necessarily so in another. Getting expert help from a translator who understands not only language but also the culture of the country is vital.

Translation mistake #3: not proofreading

When handling translations into a language you don’t speak yourself it’s essential to get all copy proofread by someone who does. Swansea Council came unstuck when requesting a Welsh translation of the phrase “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” The translation response came by email and road signs with both English and the Welsh translation were duly produced and erected. Unfortunately, the email they had received said in Welsh: “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”, and this is what was on the road signs…

As you can see, large brands are not immune to making major translation errors and when these do occur, an appropriate response is necessary. Here are three steps we would recommend you take if you fall foul of mistranslations:

  1. Public apology – an apology for any offence caused is essential and this should be delivered with respect and cultural sensitivity.
  2. Speedy removal of mistranslations – recalling all mistranslated material as quickly as possible is essential to minimise further embarrassment or misunderstandings.
  3. Strategy for avoiding error in the future – now’s the time to learn from mistakes and ensure they do not happen again.

A Solution To Bad Translations

Using a professional translation agency is a great way of eliminating any chance of mistranslations in the future. At Comtec our stringent quality procedures and team of expert translators ensure that translation mistakes are a thing of the past. To find out more about our services visit our Translation Services page, or get in touch: or +44 (0) 1926 335 681.

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