Beyond Words - Language Blog

10 Marketing Translation Fails That Impacted High-Profile Companies

Spectacular translation fails are the stuff of legend. While one of the most famous marketing translation fail examples is that of Chevy’s attempt to introduce its new car model “NOVA” in Mexico, which translates to “No go” in Spanish, this translation fail is actually a myth (there are plenty of Chevy Novas tooling around Mexico.) Chevy might have saved itself from an international marketing fail, but some other high-profile businesses completely missed the mark. Mangled marketing translations provide a look at how costly and damaging a bad translation can be. Here are some of the most (in)famous examples:

1.  Pepsi’s debut of their “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” was understood in the Chinese translation as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

2.  The American Dairy Association’s famous “Got Milk?” slogan didn’t work so well in their translation for Mexico: “Are You Lactating?”.

3.  Schweppes Tonic Water failed in Italy when the name was translated into “Schweppes Toilet Water.”

4.  Clairol’s hair curler, the mist-stick, had to be rebranded in Germany after they found out that “mist” in German means “manure.” The whiskey brand name Canadian Mist didn’t work out so well either.

5.  The original Spanish translation of Perdue’sIt takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” was “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”

6.  Mercedes-Benz initially launched in China with the name “Bensi,” which translates to “Rush to die.”

7.  Paxam labeled laundry soap using the Farsi word forsnow” — and Barf Detergent Powder was born.

8.  IKEA wanted to promote the “fährt” (speed) of their desk wheel design, so they named the desk “Fartfull.”

9.  The classic Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “Finger lickin’ good” was originally translated into Chinese asEat your fingers off.”

10.  HSBC had to undertake a $10 million rebranding campaign after they found that their translation of “Assume Nothing” was interpreted in several countries as “Do Nothing.”

These examples demonstrate how bungled translations can derail the best-laid plans of companies in a global marketplace. Companies undertake massive efforts to integrate their production, goods, and services among disparate cultures, so why undermine all of that work with substandard translation practices? Skimping on the translation process doesn’t make sense when the stakes are so high.

Online Translation Software Doesn’t Include Cultural or Linguistic References

An extreme example of cutting corners is using online translation software. While these sites can provide the general gist of the text, much is lost in nuance and references, particularly when it comes to advertising and marketing. When you plug in text, translate it into another language, and then translate back into English, you get an idea of the twists and turns that can happen. Here’s an example using the first sentence of this article in Google Translate:

ORIGINAL ENGLISH: Spectacular translation fails are the stuff of legend.

  • ARABIC: The amazing translation failure is a mythical material.
  • CROATIAN: Spectacular translation fails to be a legend.
  • FINNISH: Great translation is not a legend.
  • THAI: An impressive translation fails as a myth.
  • TURKISH: Great translation failure is part of the legend.

As demonstrated with the Google Translate experiment, exceptional translations are as much an art as a science. The best translators can convey the meaning and spirit of the source text while avoiding negative idioms and cultural references that can undermine a company’s best intentions. On the other hand, the worst translators (and translation software) tell your audience to eat their fingers or summon the dead.

Employing professional translation services can save your company thousands, if not millions. With a network of 2000+ native language translators in over 100 languages, ALTA Language Services provides the best certified translation services in the industry. Make sure that your international business branding efforts are successful with ALTA’s translation services! For more information on our marketing translation, visit: https://www.altalang.com/translation-services/translation-for-sales-and-marketing/.


Kim Horn lives in State College, PA, and has been working with Alta Translation Services for over 20 years as a project manager and typesetter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *