The 10 most disastrous mistranslations in history

The translation experts at Jublo take a deep-dive into the history of advertising translations to find the ten most disastrous examples of all time. 

Chinese writing on a wall

When a product is launched in an international market, it’s crucial to make sure your audience can actually understand the marketing copy.

Unfortunately, these big name brands learned the hard way that, when it comes to translations, taking a short cut often means you risk causing offence and even losing customers.

Here are 10 of the most problematic translations in the history of marketing.

1. Amazon’s ‘Frying Pans for Women’

The most recent culprit was e-commerce giant Amazon, which launched in Sweden and hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Not only did it mistake the Argentinian flag for the Swedish one, it also failed to localise its translations from English to Swedish, meaning product descriptions were littered with mistranslations ranging from hilarious to obscene.

The word ‘rooster’ was replaced with the Swedish word for male genitals, a frying pan was listed as a ‘product for women’, Nintendo Switch games were listed as suitable for the ‘Nintendo Circuit Breaker’, and a collection of Second World War-era Russian infantry figurines was translated as ‘Russian toddlers’.

Cat lovers were also shocked to see a t-shirt with a cat on it being labelled with a vulgar Swedish term for ‘vagina’. Oops.

2. Pepsi Zombies

When Pepsi launched their new slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” in China, it was met with confusion from the Chinese people, as the translation actually read ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’.

It couldn’t have happened in a worse market, given the importance of ancestry in Chinese culture.

3. General Electric Top Trumps

When General Electric launched a new partnership brand in Europe, it originally used the acronym GPT. After the launch, it realised that in French, GPT is pronounced “J’ai pété.”

Translation: “I farted”

4. Schweppes’ Gin & Toilet Water 

The world famous beverages brand got a bit potty mouthed when its Tonic Water was wrongly translated in Italian. Gin and Tonic? Nope – Schweppes’ advertising translated to Gin and toilet water. Delicious!

5. RIP Mercedes-Benz

When Mercedes entered the market in China in 2009, the first translation of its name was “Bensi”- which means ‘rush to die’ in Chinese.

Needless to say this wasn’t a popular concept to associate with a car, so they quickly changed the name to “Benchi” – which has a much more appropriate meaning of ‘to run quickly as if flying’.

6. Kentucky Fried Fingers

Kentucky Fried Chicken is renowned for its English slogan, “Finger-lickin’ Good!”

But unfortunately, that phrase doesn’t directly translate in Chinese. When it tried to launch its infamous campaign, it actually said “Eat Your Fingers!”

Not quite the tasty slogan that we’re used to.

7. Clairol’s Smelly Stick

American hair-care company Clairol released a new hair curling iron, which was named the “Mist Stick” in English.

When the product was launched internationally, it was met with some difficulties in Germany – because it had failed to realise that in german ‘Mist’ is slang for ‘manure’.

8. Trouble for Orange

During Orange’s 1994 launch campaign, the telecom company was forced to change its advertising strategy in Northern Ireland after the one they were using in England caused a bit of contraversy.

Their famous tagline “The future’s bright … the future’s Orange.” was considered ignorant of its cultural implications, as the term ‘Orange’ suggested the Orange Order, a symbol of Protestant union in Ireland. Given that the Troubles were still ongoing at this point, the implied message that “The future’s bright, the future’s Protestant” didn’t sit well with the Catholic Irish population.

9. Ford’s Corpses

A few years ago, vehicle manufacturer Ford launched an ad campaign that stated that ‘Every car has a high-quality body’ – referring to the outer covering of the car.

Unfortunately, when the slogan was translated in Belgian it became ‘every car has a high-quality corpse’. A slightly morbid free gift!

10. HSBC Do Nothing

HSBC is well-known as being one of the most successful wealth managers in the world of finance. But in 2009, it needed to launch a $10M rebranding strategy in order to re-write its catchphrase, “Assume Nothing.”

The phrase was mistranslated in a number of different markets as “Do Nothing.”

Not really an ideal attitude when it comes to managing your money.

Advice from Jublo

While these errors may often result from poorly carried out translations, they also come from a lack of understanding of the culture. For example, the tagline for Orange will have been publicised in a number of English speaking markets – but, without the consideration of semantics for different audiences, can still cause offence.

Although machine translation (MT) is becoming more effective, it is still unable to pick up on these kinds of mistakes. This is why it is key to have native-speaking translators who are able to localise your text and avoid any embarrassing faux-pas.

  • Jublo has been providing consultancy, engineering and digital services for translation projects of all shapes and sizes since 2008.

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