Translated Advertisements Gone Wrong

By Slava
Sep 21, 2009 · 3 min
Yes, this is yet another article highlighting the age-old tradition of context being lost in translation. There's a reason why this phenomenon is still widespread despite the ever-rising demand for professional translation firms and solo translation services. Even though context is what determines the proper understanding of a message or view—and a word by itself cannot exist without context, just like paragraphs, sentences, and phrases—there are a lot of factors present that can help muddle an original text's context regardless if you use machine or human translation to interpret it. A properly conveyed and translated message will allow people to have a nigh-universal comprehension of the original content, localization obstacles be damned. Then again, failure to address personal or cultural interpretation can and will result in misunderstandings, faux pas, unfortunate implications, and hilarious gaffes. To illustrate, here are some of the most heinous translation mistakes made even by industry biggies:
  • Professional translation or no, there's really no excuse for turning the Salem Cigarette tagline of "Salem; feeling free" into the long yet tragically entertaining, "When smoking Salem, you'll feel so relaxed that your mind will seem empty and free," in Japanese.
  • A Miami-based American t-shirt company tried to take advantage of the Spanish market during the Pope's visit there, but instead of their t-shirts stating, "the Pope" or "el Papa", it instead read "the potato" or "la papa". Big difference.
  • A translation service was able to botch up the KFC slogan of "Finger-licking good" and turn it into the horribly transliterated "Eat your fingers off" message in Chinese.
  • How did Parker Pen's ads go from "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you" to "It won't leak in your pocket and impregnate you"? One word: embrazar (to impregnate); the company thought this meant ‘embarrass’ in Mexico. Well, they definitely were once the ad came out.
  • Human translation companies everywhere have all probably heard about the story of Gerber selling its "baby food" to Africa, which confused the natives because companies usually put pictures on the label of what's inside, so they thought it was "baby food" in the most literal sense of the term. The prejudiced and nigh-racist tall tale's truthfulness is highly suspect, but its message of bad translation still rings true.
  • Here's another one from China. Pepsi's promotion that asks people to "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" ended up becoming the creepy and bizarre "Pepsi resurrects your ancestors back from the dead" in Chinese.
  • Remember the Chevy Nova's tagline that got translated into "It won't go" in Spanish markets? Ford one-upped their competitor's gaffe by selling the Pinto to the Brazilians. Unfortunately, "Pinto" was Brazilian slang for "Tiny Penis", so Ford eventually renamed their infamously dangerous car into "Horse" or "Corcel".
  • The "It takes a strong man to make tender chicken" slogan of Frank Perdue was corrupted into the bestial and iniquitous "It takes an aroused man to make chicken affectionate" in Spanish.
While it's all well and good for translators to practice translating context based on a whole discourse instead of concentrating on translation techniques applied on a word-per-word basis, it's even more important for them to be aware of the socio-political, religious, cultural, and locale-exclusive mores and norms of the intended market. ---

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