Marketing translations gone wrong

A great marketing translation requires a comprehensive understanding of a region’s culture and dialect.

On the other hand, a marketing translation fail requires nothing more than poor planning and a good sense of humour.

Because when they go wrong, oh boy, do they go wrong.

To start, rather than telling you the translation fails to avoid in advertising, we thought we’d show you:

Beware the homonym

Parker Pen translated their slogan “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” into Spanish for a new Mexican audience.
The word “embarrass” was translated to the similar “embaraz√°”. But, as you can guess, they do not mean the same thing. Parker Pen had accidentally translated their slogan to “It won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you”.

Your name says a lot about you

The Chevy Nova is a car owned by General Motors. When introducing the car in South America, they were unaware that Nova pronounced as “No Va” means “It won’t go” in the local language. Not ideal when selling something designed to get you from A to B.

Our differences are what make us special

Toothpaste brand, Pepsodent launched in Southeast Asia with its typical promise to ‘whiten your teeth’. But they missed the crucial fact that locals celebrate black teeth, even chewing betel nuts to achieve a darker colour. Market research team? Where are you?

Let’s not get literal

Another classic translation fail in advertising was when KFC directly translated their slogan “finger-licking good” into a Chinese dialect, which came out as “eat your fingers off”. No thanks.

kfc china LEaF Translations

Why is it so hard to get marketing translations right?

Well, when it comes to avoiding international marketing fails, most brands trip up on cultural and language differences.

Here are a few aspects to bear in mind next time you’re translating a marketing or sales campaign:

You need to translate everything.

Translating marketing collateral is one thing. But all too often, companies forget branding translations such as the product name and tagline or the all-important Ts and Cs.

Robotic translations can make your content hard to read

The English you’re taught in school and the English you speak with friends is very different. Without colloquialisms and natural sentence structures, your content can become robotic and uncomfortable for people to read.

Grammatical errors damage trust

Similar to the cautionary tale of robotic terminology, grammatical errors lead to an uncomfortable reading experience. And if a customer can’t trust you to learn the correct grammar, well, what can they trust you with?

Communication is on the visual cues too

Speaking and written text is just one part of how we communicate. Visual clues play a huge role in sharing intentions and information. If you don’t translate your packaging and imagery, you could convey a completely different message.

Cultures are complex things

Finally, you need to consider what’s appropriate in certain cultures. Informal or lewd language might be poorly received or even banned in some countries. And certain cultures might prioritise different product benefits compared to your original market.

laptop on white desk LEaF Translations

How to translate your content effectively


Begin your translation process by creating a timeline with multiple evaluation checkpoints. Clearly define which languages and territories your project will incorporate, and create a definitive list of everything to translate.

Do your research

If possible, travel to the new regions and meet local people. Learn which cultures live there, the countries governing history, and the different dialects spoken. Nothing will give you an edge like experiencing the culture for yourself. As part of your initial research, consider cultural stories and connotations. For example, in Japan, they believe babies are delivered on floating peaches, not via stork.

Use a professional translator from your target culture

Translations aren’t the place to use that ‘guy you know’. Professional translators always translate from their second language into their native language – so do your due diligence and employ the services of a translator who is native to your target language. Finally, take time to ensure they understand your vision and the intent of your content.

Take a different approach with names and slogans

We’ve already mentioned the “Nova” fail. The colours, shapes and sounds used by brand names and slogans are part of a nuanced understanding of cultural norms formed by centuries of history. For example, Northern Ireland heavily associates the colour orange with religious protestants. Meaning when the mobile phone provider ‘Orange’ launched in the region, their brand took on a whole new meaning.

Am I doomed to mess up my marketing translation?

Not at all! Excellent translations are everywhere, successfully blending into their surroundings.

A successful translation story comes from Red Bull. When they launched in China, they were widely accepted and celebrated thanks to a clever redesign of their cans. The new cans featured colours considered lucky in China, including a new gold body with red bulls and black writing.

Intel discovered that their slogan “Sponsors of Tomorrow” implied they weren’t reliable today in Portuguese when moving into Latin America. Instead, the slogan became “Intel: In Love with the Future”.

Need help from a professional translation company for your marketing translations?

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.