Million-Dollar Translation Mistakes Made by International Companies

The combination of marketing and translation blunders is a recipe for disaster; this is especially true for global businesses.

Localizing a brand is no easy task. Even companies with several years of experience have fallen into the deadly trap of hiring substandard translators, which makes you think they should have known better!

Listed below are major brands that have faced massive translation fails that are both embarrassing and expensive.

“Bite the wax tadpole”—Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola experienced difficulties when their brand name was first marketed in China. They had to find the phonetic equivalent to each of the four syllables that make up the name Coca-Cola.

The first name that came about was Ke-Kou-Ke-La, which meant “bite the wax tadpole” or “a female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect; thousands of signs were printed carrying this silly error.

To remedy the sticky situation, Coca-Cola’s marketing team had to research 40,000 Chinese characters to suit their trademark name, taking into consideration the meaning of each of the Chinese characters, independently and as a whole.

They chose to use Mandarin as it is a dialect that is widely used by the Chinese, settling with Ke-Kou-Ke-Le, which is roughly translated “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice,” that is, expressing one’s joy from drinking Coke.

“We’ll eat your fingers off”—KFC

Similar to Coca-Cola’s Chinese blunder, KFC followed suit when its popular slogan “Finger lickin’ good” was mistranslated into a cannibalistic phrase “Eat your fingers off” in Mandarin.

Fortunately, as KFC is new to the Chinese market, this awkward adaptation didn’t seem to harm their brand’s image. KFC immediately amended their mistake and went on to become the most successful western fast-food chain in China.

“Toilet water”—Schweppes

Schweppes, a beverage brand famed for its sparkling water, had rendered their “tonic water” into “toilet water” when they launched their product in Italy. Needless to say, a lot of Italians were turned off by its distasteful name.

Learning it the hard way, Schweppes made sure they would not repeat the same mistake in their subsequent campaigns.

“Do nothing”—HSBC

When HSBC decided to bring their campaign overseas, their catchphrase “Assume nothing” was mistranslated to “Do nothing” in several countries. As a private banking company, this is not the message they would want to convey to their consumers.

In an attempt to repair the damage, HSBC launched a rebranding campaign, which costed them a whopping USD 10 million.

Today, HSBC carries the tagline “The world’s local bank.”

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Coca-cola Company
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