"Bite The Wax Tadpole"

Dec. 21, 2004
And other translation blunders from the annals of bad global marketing.

When businesses begin to market across cultures, they frequently encounter linguistic problems. Translating product and company names can be difficult; translating advertising slogans can be downright impossible. Over the years, some of the largest and most marketing-savvy companies have made some of the biggest translation blunders. Translating English brand-names or slogans into Asian languages can be particularly difficult. When you chose the closest approximate sound to your brand-name, the resulting word can have an undesirable meaning. In the 1920s, when Coca-Cola was first translated phonetically into Chinese, the resultant phrase meant "bite the wax tadpole." Coke finally marketed its product under an alternate phrase, which sounded less like "Coca-Cola" but carried the more appetizing meaning "can mouth, can happy." Pepsi too had problems with Chinese when their slogan "Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation" was translated for a Taiwanese billboard as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken) found that its "Finger-Lickin' Good" slogan was translated into Chinese as the admonition "Eat Your Fingers Off." Coca-Cola also had trouble in other markets. A few years ago, the jingle "Have a Coke and a Smile" was translated into French. Although the translation was technically correct, words aren't always heard clearly when they're sung, and the song sounded like "Have a Coke and a Mouse." Sometimes mistranslations are caused by circumstances beyond anyone's control. Wind caused an unfortunate alteration of a Coke skywriting ad in Cuba. The ad was supposed to read "Tome Coca-Cola" ("Drink Coca-Cola"), but the wind blurred the second letter, making the message "Teme Coca-Cola" ("Fear Coca-Cola"). Even when a translation is accurate, marketing can be undermined by local slang. David A. Ricks' classic book Blunders in International Business (1993, Blackwell Publishing) notes that automobile companies have had lots of trouble in foreign markets. For example, when Ford Motor Co. marketed the Pinto in Brazil, they discovered that "pinto" was Brazilian slang for "small penis." Naturally, no man wanted to own a "pinto," so Ford blithely changed the car's name to Corcel, which means "horse" in Portuguese. The car reportedly sold well after that. Ford also experienced problems in Mexico, where its Caliente wasn't selling. The company eventually discovered that "caliente" is Mexican slang for "prostitute." Ford's light truck Fiera had a similar problem: in several Spanish-speaking countries, "fiera" is slang for "ugly old woman." The now-defunct American Motors Corp. thought that their Matador would do well in Puerto Rico. They were wrong -- Puerto Rico is not a big bullfighting country, and "matador" is local slang for "killer." Of course, the classic example of a bad automobile name goes to General Motors Corp., when the Chevy Nova was marketed in Latin America without a name change. Technically, the word "nova" means the same in English and Spanish: an exploding star. But when spoken aloud, it also sounds like the Spanish phrase "no va," which means "it does not go." Sales were poor in Latin America until GM changed the model's name to Caribe. Sometimes companies get in trouble even when they don't attempt translations. Appliance manufacturer Sunbeam didn't change the name of its Mist-Stick curling iron when it was marketed in German. But "mist" is not a pleasant word in German, and not many German women wanted to use a "dung stick" in their hair! But translation blunders aren't confined to big businesses. Small businesses also make some bonehead mistakes. When the Pope visited Miami some years ago, an ambitious Anglo entrepreneur wanted to sell T-shirts with the logo "I saw the Pope" in Spanish. But he forgot that the definite article in Spanish has two genders. Instead of printing "El Papa" ("the Pope"), he printed "La Papa" ("the potato"). There wasn't much of a market for selling shirts that proclaimed "I saw the potato." The lesson from all this? Get a literate native speaker to do your translations -- and double-check them before they go to press. Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway are the co-authors of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries (1994, Bob Adams Inc.), Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World (1997, Prentice Hall), and two new books: The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union (1997, Macmillan Spectrum) and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the Latin America (1997, Macmillan Spectrum). For further information about Getting Through Customs' seminars, online database, and books, phone 610/725-1040 or fax 610/725-1074. E-mail: [email protected]. Mail: Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Enter their Web site book contest at http://www.getcustoms.com.

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