The biggest translation fails

Lost in translation

Susanne Holzer | © punkt & komma
Susanne Holzer
Content editor

We’ve all been there: You’re on holiday and skimming the menu of a local restaurant – and suddenly you can’t help but hoot with laughter. Did you just spot the famous “Pizza Vier Bahnhof” (“Quattro Stagioni”), the “Brust der Türkei” (“Pechuga de pavo”) or the “liebe und saure Schweinchen” (“Sweet and sour pork”)? Alas, the Frankenstein monsters of translation are not just alive and kicking on the menus of this world …

While a little translation faux pas might be quite funny when it’s only about your holiday snack, it’s no laughing matter when it happens in the business world. Inaccurate, imprecise or simply incorrect translations can have far-reaching consequences for companies. On the one hand, incorrect translations are quite simply embarrassing. On the other hand, they can be detrimental to your business or even have legal consequences.

But I can do it with Google Translate! Yes, you can. But only for personal use, please! Otherwise you might end up with bloomers like those mentioned in our blog article Google Translate – friend or foe? (NB: This article is only available in German.)

We’ve said it before:
„It’s better to spend money on a professional translation than to put your foot in it. “
More than just language command

What makes translations so tricky

Because even if it’s tempting, your School German or School French are quite possibly not enough to aptly translate certain things into a foreign language.

There’s a reason why most professional translators and interpreters have spent many years honing their skills at university. Because, quite simply, “saying something in German/French/Italian” is not the same as correctly and comprehensively translating a statement into another language.

In addition to excellent command of both source and target language, professional translators also need other vital skills:

  • detailed knowledge of the target market’s culture  
  • in-depth understanding of different text types and target groups
  • expert knowledge of the covered topic
  • a fine feel for language

A good translator – like our experts from the punkt & komma team – has all these skills and uses them to make sure that what you want to say is literally not just “all Greek” to your readers.

Our tip: To find out what other skills a good translator needs, read our blog article 4 web copy translation myths”.

Globus auf einem Tisch | © unsplash

The most common translation mistakes

How NOT to do it

As many of us know, translating can be tricky. Every language is full of nuances and special characteristics that sometimes can make translating a real nightmare. Even professional translators have been known to fall into language traps from time to time.

The most common translation mistakes include:

  • False friends:
    This phenomenon is also known as “faux ami”. It refers to words that sound very similar in different languages while having an often completely different meaning, e.g. German “aktuell” (current, up-to-date) and English “actual” (really, in fact).
  • Pseudo anglicisms:
    If it sounds English, it’s bound to be English … or maybe not! Just consider the German word “Handy” which is not at all the word native English speakers use for their mobile phones. Another nice example is that of a German beverage manufacturer who wanted to raffle off a backpack as part of a promotion and called it a “body bag” – an accessory which is rather less popular in the English-speaking world.
  • Word-for-word translation:
    Translating is particularly tricky when it comes to idioms and plays on words. Just think how different the English idiom “carrot and stick” is to the German “Zuckerbrot and Peitsche”.
  • No direct translation:
    It’s true: Some things simply can’t be translated – at least not directly. For instance, there is no direct English translation for the German words “Fernweh”, “Schnapsidee” or “Torschlusspanik”, requiring translators to put on their thinking caps.

It happens to the best of us …

Famous translation fails

The good news: Even if a major translation fail has happened to you – you’re not alone! Even major global players have been known to put their foot in it with awful translations of their product names, slogans or marketing texts. Sounds quite unbelievable? Then buckle up for the ride …

Even if it probably wasn’t all that funny for them, we admit to feeling a bit of “Schadenfreude” (incidentally another German word with no direct translation in English) when it comes to the following translation fails of renowned international brands.

  • When Pepsi wanted to adapt their slogan „Come alive with the Pepsi generation” for the Chinese market, they ended up with “Pepsi brings back your ancestors from the grave” instead.
  • When Parker Pens wanted to tell the Mexican audience that their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”, they used the word “embarazar” for “embarrass” – which actually means “to impregnate” in Spanish. Oops!
  • When Chevrolet introduced their “Nova” to the Spanish market, they probably didn’t consider that “no va” means “doesn’t drive” in Spanish. The same happened to Ford and their “Pinto”, which turned out to be slang for “small male genitals” in Brazil.
  • When Kellogg’s launched their “Bran Buds” cereals on the Swedish market, they probably didn’t know that the Swedes wouldn’t want to eat something called “burned farmer”.
  • KFC scared Chinese consumers by translating their slogan “Finger Lickin’ Good” as “Eat your fingers off”.
Few words, big impact

Why slogans are so difficult to translate

As our famous examples of international brand fails show, slogans are often horribly mistranslated. But why is that? After all, slogans usually only consist of a couple of words. Well, it might only be a few words – but these words mostly carry a lot of meaning.

The following is usually true for slogans:

  • They are creative.
  • They include plays on words.
  • They are based on well-known idioms.
  • They communicate nonverbal, cultural aspects.
  • They have local shades of meaning.
Viele Holzbuchstaben auf einen Haufen | © pexels

These reasons make slogans notoriously difficult to translate. Actually, what you need is often not a translation but “localisation” – adapting an idea to a different target language and culture.

Sometimes it’s necessary to completely change the source text in order to communicate the same meaning in the target text. This process is also called “transcreation”, a combination of “translation” and “creation”.

Word-for-word translations are completely useless in this case. Instead, you often end up with translations that have an entirely new message while retaining the same emotional connection with the target group.

Here’s an example: Nike’s legendary slogan “Just do it” didn’t work for the Chinese market. That’s why the company opted for a transcreation that roughly translates to “Do sports”.

Seite eines aufgeschlagenen Englisch-Wörterbuches | © unsplash
Do it better …

… with translations by punkt & komma

You don’t want your slogan or web copy to be the next translation fail or “small male genital”? Then you can safely rely on the language services by punkt & komma.

Whether you need a translation for a certain target group or SEO-friendly web copy – we’re happy to “hit international waters” with you! Have a look at our language services!

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