The examples have become the stuff of legend: In the mid-1960s, Pepsi’s slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” failed to energize Taiwan, as the translation read “Pepsi Brings Your Relatives Back From the Dead”.
Coors’ campaign “Turn it Loose” went flat in Spain, urging drinkers to “Get Diarrhoea”. Few had it worse than poultry baron Frank Perdue, though, whose billboards in Spain mistranslated his well-known slogan “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” to read “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate”.
For big businesses, the gaffes are amusing missteps that might briefly impact the bottom line, but don’t put the company at risk. For entrepreneurs, having your message lost in translation can be catastrophic.
If you decide to expand into overseas markets, localization is key – and it’s never a good idea to take shortcuts. Online translation tools or tapping the knowledge of an employee’s foreign language skills might seem like good money-savers, but they can have disastrous ramifications. To make an impact, you’re best off hiring a professional translator.
The fact is there is a significant difference between being fluent in a language and being a native speaker. Professional translators normally only translate into their mother tongue, since the nuances of language are so subtle – and so glaring if they are missed.
Ideally if you are getting something translated, you should be offered the opportunity for feedback and revision of the first draft translation. This is especially important if you intend to run the text past a focus group of native speakers.
Try, also, to find a translation company that has expertise in your industry. You’re looking for someone that not only is a native speaker, but also knows the ins and outs of your industry.
If you need promotional material, look for companies that also provide native-speaking creative copywriters. This service, sometimes called transcreation, is vital for advertising material and brochures with culture-specific references.
Localising a product or service means more than producing marketing literature in that country’s language. The customs and overall culture of the country are equally important.
For that reason, the best translation companies employ only people who live in the country and are immersed in the culture for which the translation is intended. Had Colgate consulted such a firm before launching their toothpaste called Cue in France, customers might have been spared the embarrassment of being presented with a hardcore pornographic magazine when they asked for the product. Turns out the magazine, which shared the name, had been around for years.
Make sure your translation service also has a firm grip on the colloquialisms and slang in your target country. The Scandinavian company Electrolux failed to do so when launching in the U.S., causing some snickering when its slogan – “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” – began appearing in marketing literature.
It’s worth noting that these same considerations apply to website localization. Marketing online in the language of the country you are targeting enjoys significant competitive advantages – but getting the language wrong can hurt you badly.
Finally, if you’re expanding to a market where widespread illiteracy is a problem, you’ll need to think about translation in a different manner.
Gerber learned this years ago when it began marketing its baby food in Africa. The company used the same packaging it did in the US and Europe: a picture of a happy Caucasian baby on the label. It was only later that it discovered that because a large proportion of the population was illiterate, most companies only put pictures of the contents on the label.
Christian Arno is founder of translation company Lingo24 which operates across four continents in more than 60 countries covering every industry sector, with a global network of over 4,000 freelance translators.