Mistranslations convey an image that a company does not care about its customers abroad. Firms doing business in multilingual societies need to decide what languages to use for communications, product packaging and advertising. Rule of thumb: Go for the simplest of words, express one idea in each sentence and avoid culture-specific references (e.g., he sings like Frank Sinatra).
Here are fourteen examples of funny mistranslations that could have been avoided had the companies slowed down with their communication process and cared enough to hire a professional translator or translation agency.
1. When American Airlines wanted to advertise its new leather first class seats in the Mexican market, it translated its "Fly In Leather" campaign literally, which meant "Fly Naked" (vuela en cuero) in Spanish.
2. Coors put its slogan, "Turn It Loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer From Diarrhea."
3. In 1987, Braniff Airlines ran ads on television, on radio, and in newspapers touting its leather seats. Radio ads in Florida were the first to reveal an unintended double meaning. For years, international business books have cited this example without a reference, and other publications have reported that the blooper came from American Airlines.
4. An English version of a newspaper ad campaign run by Electricite de France, a French state-owned utility firm, said that the company offered “competitive energetic solutions” and was “willing to accompany your development by following you on all of your sites in Europe and beyond.”
5. The intent of a certain fountain pen company (rumored to be Parker) advertising in Latin America suffered in translation when the new ink was promoted to “help prevent unwanted pregnancies.”
6. The intent was also lost in translation when “hydraulic rams” came out as “wet sheep.”
7. The poster of an engineering company at a Russian trade show did not mean to promise that its oil well completion equipment was dandy for “improving a person’s sex life.”
8. Pepsi came up with the translation of its "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" slogan. In Taiwan, it became "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."
9. In the menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for."
10. In a Zurich hotel: “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”
11. A few funny mistranslations from readers who travel globally:
I spotted a sign over the door of a London museum that read "Way Out." I thought that was pretty funny since, in America we use "Exit" over the door and "Way Out" typically refers to something pretty cool or far-fetched.
My favorite was over a drinking fountain at the old Beijing Airport: “This water passed by quarantine board.”
12. In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into “Schweppes Toilet Water.”
13. From a hostel in Spain, "Please throw of the door."
14. Part of a hotel manual of a guest-house in Shanghai:
Please don’t damage and take away, the furniture and equipment in the hotel or something borrowed from the Main Tower and change their usages. If happened, We will claim for damage and loss.
Please don’t take things which are subject to burning, explosion, rolling into the Main Tower. Please throw the cigrettened march into the ashtry when smoking in the room.
Please don’t pick fruit and flower and vomit anywhere. Please don’t take the animal and usual smell things into the hotel.
The importance of understanding the language of a country cannot be overestimated. The successful global marketer must achieve expert communication, and this requires a thorough understanding of the language as well as the ability to speak it.