Steps to Prevent a Translation Faux Pas
Translation is one of the most important aspects of International Marketing. Even the most powerful brands can make a mistake, and it can oftentimes be a detrimental blow for the brand image that can be expensive to reverse. Companies can learn from other’s past mistakes, and establish preventative measures that help reduce the likelihood of an occurrence of a translation misstep. Some of the most infamous translation failures caused problems for brands such as Coors, KFC, and Mercedes-Benz, to name a few. Geoffrey James published an article on Inc.com entitled, 20 Epic Fails in Global Branding, where he listed some of the most embarrassing translation errors that companies have made in their international marketing campaigns. These included the following five blunders:
- Coors translated its slogan, “Turn It Loose,” into Spanish, where it is a colloquial term for having diarrhea. (James)
- Ford blundered when marketing the Pinto in Brazil because the term in Brazilian Portuguese means “tiny male genitals.” (James)
- Frank Perdue’s tagline, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” got translated into Spanish as “It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate.” (James)
- KFC made Chinese consumers a bit apprehensive when “finger licking good” was translated as “eat your fingers off.” (James)
- Mercedes-Benz entered the Chinese market under the brand name “Bensi,” which means “rush to die.” (James)
While these botched translations are comical to us, they can cost a fortune for companies to fix. One expensive example is HSBC Bank’s global campaign. As explained in Chad Brooks’ Business News Daily article entitled, Lost in Translation: 8 International Marketing Fails , “In 2009, the worldwide bank spent millions of dollars to scrap its 5-year-old “Assume Nothing” campaign. Problems arose when the message was brought overseas, where it was translated in many countries as “Do Nothing.” In the end, the bank spent $10 million to change its tagline to “The world’s private bank,” which has a much more friendly translation” (Brooks). In order to prevent costly translation faux pas, the following are six steps that companies can take to help ensure success.
- Learn from other companies’ mistakes – Just because you can translate a catch-phrase directly, does not mean you should. As we saw with KFC’s “finger-lickin good” blunder described above, direct translations of idioms rarely translate across cultures. Brands should hire advertising firms that are native to the host country to come up with idiomatic phrases that fit instead of translating existing ones.
- Hire more than one native speaker from multiple regions – Different regions have different slang, pronunciations, and colloquial idioms, which should be accounted for by hiring multiple translators, each coming from various regions within the country. Also, since slang and word meanings can vary within the different socioeconomic classes of a community, companies can ask members of various socioeconomic backgrounds to interpret the meanings of the campaign’s slogans and messages. These interpretations can then be translated back to the company’s home language.
- Utilize back translation and parallel translation methods – Back translation is when translators interpret a translation and translate it back to the home language in order to find discrepancies in the different translations. Parallel translation is when translators each translate simultaneously and then the differences are minimized. Each of these methods can help companies prevent translation errors.
- Test it out before the big campaign – Author Jim Collins’ quote: “Shoot bullets before cannonballs” (Collins), perfectly exemplifies how companies should approach international marketing campaigns. First, a company should test out the campaign on a small segment of the population in order to accumulate feedback, and make any needed adjustments before the big launch. This way, if there is a translation error, it can be caught before the damage is too widespread. After learning from the successful small-scale “bullet” launch, the company can then launch the full-scale “cannonball” campaign.
- Don’t assume your company’s name and slogan must stay exactly the same – When translating the marketing campaign, make sure to take into account that the current domestic slogan, and even the brand name itself, may need to be altered to adapt to the new country’s culture. Even the way the brand name is pronounced may need to be adapted, as Coca-Cola figured out in their expansion to China.
- Double check, triple check – When in doubt, always double check. If a brand is launching a new international marketing campaign, they should double check the translations and reactions with as many people as a company can afford. While surveying and testing may be expensive and time consuming, a full-fledged mistake can be much more costly in the long run.