When Translation Goes Wrong

We’ve all heard about big companies making translation mistakes when expanding into foreign markets. While one of the most infamous mistranslations, Chevy Nova’s translation into Spanish as “no go”, is actually false, others are unfortunately true.

In 2009, when HSBC tried to re-brand itself globally, their intended “Assume Nothing” slogan was incorrectly translated to “Do Nothing”. Not exactly the image they wanted to convey. Eventually, they had to spend $10 million to change it to “The World’s Private Bank”. In the end, it turned out well for HSBC, but what if you don’t have a multi-million dollar budget to fix the error of your ways? Translating your services is not something to be taken lightly. If done incorrectly, it could cost your company before you’ve even had a chance to tell your customers what you’re offering.

It’s not just about words, but culture too

Just picking an automated translation randomly isn’t going to cut it either. It’s important to use a service that uses native speakers as many words hold a deeper cultural significance or have recently taken on a different meaning colloquially.

For example, when Vicks first introduced its cough drops to the German market, they later found out that “ficks” (the way a German would pronounce “Vicks”) sounds a lot like sexual intercourse. Decidedly not the context in which the product is supposed to be used (ouch!).

Another example of the importance of understanding cultural differences is when Gerber, a Nestlé subsidiary, expanded their baby food in the African market. Instead of adapting their product’s packaging, they simply rolled out the same design they used in the U.S – an image of a baby on the front. However, most products in Africa display the contents of their product on the packaging as the majority of the population is illiterate. Needless to say, they didn’t sell many “baby” wipes.

It’s not only companies that can make these mistakes, it can happen to governments too. During the Second World War, the Japanese Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, used the word “mokusatsu” in a statement issued in reference to the Potsdam ultimatum. One definition of the word is “silence” and it was intended to mean “no comment”. However, it can also be translated as “not worthy of comment”. This angered President Truman and subsequently the fate of Japan. Hiroshima is, as they say, history. To deem this an epic failure could quite possibly be the understatement of the (20th) century.

We’ve all seen it happen

We’ve all read funny menu translations in restaurants, but somehow, sometimes, this adds to their authenticity. But when your entire brand is on the line, you should be a little more cautious.

Here’s one I can personally attest to. Should the popular Latin American food brand “Fanny” want to expand overseas, they may encounter some problems. Whole aisles in supermarkets are lined with tins of Fanny, a popular brand of tuna. Hopefully if they do expand abroad, the company will use a reliable localization agency before deciding on a name. Don’t assume your name works the same everywhere.

So to avoid being the company on a marketing course’s How Not To Localize lecture, find out how we can be of service to you.

Localizing your apps and services can help you see a 200% increase in downloads! This is significant as a whopping 90% of mobile phone usage happens within an app, as opposed to on web browsers.

Robert Lo Bue

Rob is CEO of Applingua. With over a decade's experience, he is at the forefront of tech localization.


  1. […] Choose wisely when opting for machine translation services as in some cases they may only provide a literal, word-for-word translation, which, as you can imagine, leads to a terrible result. Even though it might be comprehensible to some extent, it may not keep the original meaning. Moreover, some words can have various possible meanings in the target language. If you need more convincing of the pitfalls poor translation can bring, check out our post on When Translation Goes Wrong. […]

  2. […] content, it’s essential that at least a part of it is done by humans – see our post on when Translating Goes Wrong. However, visual aids could add a deeper understanding when human translation is not […]

  3. the words to ask and demand are also very different. Translation from Google is useful if we want to get the basic i8dea of anything. But, sometimes the most important part is missing.

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