Bad Translations Don’t Get Anyone Going
St. Paul has a sizable Hmong population, which was a bit of a surprise to me. But then I’m no expert on the Hmong people. McDonald’s, which is in the business of selling fast food to everyone no matter their language or ethnic origin, put up a few billboards in the Hmong community extolling the virtues of the McDonald’s breakfast. They took their advertising slogan ‘Coffee gets you up, Breakfast gets you going’ and had it translated into Hmong.
Unfortunately, this now turns into a cautionary tale of the dangers of sloppy translation work. While the text accompanying the delectable photos of coffee and an Egg McMuffin were in the ballpark, there were plenty of errors that actually put off the Hmong community.
There was no proper spacing between words, and while technically correct, it wasn’t translated in a natural way – it reads very strangely to a natural Hmong speaker. I have a sneaking suspicion that someone involved with the local McDonald’s franchises used some sort of machine translation to come up with the text, although I do not know that for sure. If it was a human translator, they are almost certainly out of a job.
The Effect of Translation
This shows up one of the less-discussed problems with poor translation: The effect. Yes, the text is technically correct in that it does communicate the phrase intended in some manner. I’m sure Hmong people seeing the billboard got the idea. But advertising is supposed to pull people in, and a poorly translated phrase made the Hmong people of St. Paul upset and certainly did nothing to make them think of McDonald’s as a place to go have a quick, satisfying breakfast.
Instead, it alienated them and made them feel like McDonald’s treated them as an afterthought. Poor translation work made the McDonald’s billboards into anti-advertising, driving potential customers away, even if it was understandable.
McDonald’s has issued an apology and stated it intends to correct the billboards. This is the right move, I think. Simply removing the ads would simply seem to confirm that this was a sloppy afterthought kind of move; replacing them with corrected ads puts this into the category of regrettable mistake and the Hmong community will likely forgive the restaurant chain for the error. Plus, of course, it implies that one of my colleagues in languages will be getting a good job out of this debacle, and I am always in support of my fellow translators getting more work!