Top 12 Translation Fails

Here at LEaF, we are always banging on about the importance of working with professional translators. We talk a lot about native speakers and why texts need to be translated by someone with a deep understanding of the local culture. And we love nothing more than pointing out the problems with machine translation – yes Google Translate, we are looking at you.

But we’re a translation company offering professional translation services – we would say that, wouldn’t we?

Well yes. But with good reason.

If you don’t use professional translators with local cultural knowledge, you can get yourself into a right pickle, as some top brands have found to their cost… Here are our Top 12 translation fails:

#1 Coca-Cola tries its hand at some deep irony

Back in 2018, Coca-Cola tried to join other corporations in publishing content in te reo Māori – the language used by New Zealand’s indigenous people. Google had recently launched a Māori version of its site and Disney released a Māori version of the wonderful film, Moana.

Coca-Cola part-translated their slogan “Hello, mate” into Māori, writing “KIA ORA, MATE”. Said slogan was used on vending machines selling bottles of Coca-Cola.

Unfortunately, the global corporation didn’t think to consult a professional translator or even just someone with local cultural knowledge. If they had, they would have known that in Māori “mate” means death. Yep, they wrote “HELLO, DEATH” across the top of their vending machines.

The irony has not been lost on many. According to statistics, 50% of Māori adults and 18% of Māori children are obese and consumption of fizzy drinks is believed to be part of the cause. “HELLO, DEATH” indeed.

coca-cola translation fail

#2 Google Translate said to mistranslate vital vaccine information

The Department of Health in Virginia has got into bother by seemingly using Google Translate to translate its coronavirus FAQs into Spanish. The free online translation tool translated the official advice stating that “the vaccine is not mandatory” into Spanish as “the vaccine is not necessary” – not ideal given that the US Government faces an uphill struggle in getting all groups of its population vaccinated, with vaccination rates tending to be lower among minority groups.

Using free online machine translation tools is ill-advised when it comes to marketing, but when it concerns public health and medical information, it is a recipe for disaster.

#3 Polish restaurant tries an interesting new flavour combination

#4 Nothing sucks like Electrolux

Back in the 1970s, Swedish company Electrolux launched an international ad campaign that turned out to be pretty memorable for English-speaking consumers. The campaign centred around the slogan “Nothing sucks like Electrolux”.

The UK campaign was apparently highly successful – thanks in part to the fact that the American slang version of “sucks” hadn’t made it across the Atlantic at this time. But, to US consumers, the slogan was essentially saying that Electrolux vacuums are the worst in the business.

While wordplays generally make a great addition to advertising slogans, it is vital to check that the words or phrases in question don’t have a negative meaning in any of the target cultures. The English verb “suck” may be a synonym for “vacuum”; but it also means “bad or unpleasant”.

Quite a risky marketing strategy!

#5 Pepsi makes bold claim to bring back the dead

A Pepsi marketing campaign centring around the slogan “Come alive with Pepsi Generation” got into trouble in China when it was translated as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”! A bold claim indeed!

#6 Google Translate directs Spanish speakers to “samples” of COVID

Another case of companies cutting corners by using Google Translate to translate information relating to public health and the COVID pandemic. This time, a sign at a vaccine centre, directing Spanish speakers to their COVID “samples” rather than their COVID “vaccines”.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: whether you use a professional translator or not, always get a native speaker to check the final translation!

#7 Got Milk?

Back in 1994, the California Milk Processor Board wanted to launch a campaign to target California’s large Hispanic community. The English-language slogan “Got Milk?” had proven to be a big success, but when translated into Spanish, it equated to “Are you lactating?”. Luckily, the marketing team cottoned onto this potential issue early doors and developed a more culturally aware marketing campaign for the Hispanic audience, with the tagline “Y Usted, Les dio suficiente leche hoy?”, meaning “And you, did you give them enough milk today?”. Potential marketing disaster avoided!

#8 This pork has attitude

Food translations are a gold mine when it comes to translation fails. From dodgy menu translations to “narrow-minded” pork in supermarkets.

#9 Anyone for toilet water?

When Schweppes launched their tonic water in Italy, the product name was translated literally – always a risky business. Needless to say, Italians weren’t overly keen to buy the new “Schweppes Toilet Water” drink…

#10 Bike accessories for the flatulent

Most Amazon sellers know the importance of optimising their listings, but not all appear to be fully aware of the need to get their Amazon listings translated or at least checked by a native speaker, as this product name shows. It is full of keywords, but not all of them seem to be entirely correct…

#11 Major bank tells its customers to “Do nothing”

In 2009, HSBC ran a global campaign based around the English phrase “Assume nothing”. Unfortunately, the slogan was translated into a number of languages as “Do nothing”. The bank ended up having to spend 10 million dollars rebranding. The new slogan – “The world’s private bank” – was a much safer bet.

#12 Watch your URLs

An Italian company selling battery chargers almost got itself into a spot of bother when launching its international website. It opted for a .com (gTLD) domain but still wanted to refer to its country of origin. Unfortunately for the company, Powergen, this meant a domain of powergenitalia.com. Upon realising their mistake, they swiftly changed tact and moved their site to a country-code domain (ccTLD): powergen.it.

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About the Author

Lucy LEaF blog 2021

Lucy

Lucy Pembayun, founder of the translation company LEaF Translations and a Qualified Member of the Institute of Translation & Interpreting (MITI), is a German to English translator with over 14 years’ experience. Her true passion lies in helping great, ethical businesses reach new international customers with excellent quality translations. Lucy specialises in German to English translations, including certified translations, websites, articles, sales brochures and other marketing materials.

Lucy graduated with an MA(Hons) in German from Edinburgh University before being awarded a DAAD scholarship to study for a post-graduate Masters in Germany. She has lived in Bamberg, Fulda and Berlin, and now resides in York, UK, with her husband, two children and fox red lab.

Contact Lucy directly now.