Felonies and Misdemeanors: When Translation Misfires

Because we live in a polarized society where political and social tension is putting everybody on edge, brands, both big and small, are taking great precautions to make sure that the message they get across doesn’t stir an unintended controversy.

So unless you’re Nike taking a calculated risk on Colin Kaepernick being the face of their new ad campaign, you should really pay attention to what you’re saying, how you say it, and whether your target audience is going to take offense to something in your message that was left due to oversight.

But when your message is going to travel across the borders, cross oceans and continents, and land at the door of a totally different culture, then you just made your job harder. Because the wrong words coming out of the wrong mouth could rile up your audience and alienate your consumers.

A bright example of words landing a big brand in hot soup is Kellogg. The cereal maker had just released an all bran variety and called it Bran Buds. It was a hit among cereal lovers in the US, Canada and most of Europe. Until it reached Sweden. Now you’d think that the people at Kellogg would check what the names of their products “sound” like in other languages before releasing said products in foreign markets. Most major brands do it. The same product will have different names in different societies to avoid any hint of causing any racial or cultural conflicts. But Kellogg decided to ignore that and just send a cereal that meant “burned farmer” in Swedish to the consumers and hoped they’d not notice. Also, maybe saying ‘bright example’ wasn’t the right choice of words either here. But you get the idea.

Other times the message you work hard to make it hip and hope it will resonate with the audience falls flat. And you keep wondering why. It’s working in Europe, so why it’s not working in Asian markets? Well, have you considered that maybe you were trying to tell your customers something that they don’t understand? Proctor & Gamble learned that lesson the hard way. They started selling Pampers in Japan but were shocked to see that sales were down. They didn’t get it. The package was well designed and the image of the stork delivering a baby was cute, simple, and powerful. Anybody looking at this image would have no doubt what the product was about and what it was used for. Anybody who knew what storks and babies meant, that is. But if your culture uses a different legend as the Japanese do with their giant floating baby-carying peaches myth, then the picture of a stork carrying a baby on a new product will confuse you for sure. Once the package was redesigned sales started to climb.

But translation mistakes are not just the domain of marketing ads and commercial products. As history has shown, small errors could lead to huge problems. The following infographic shows this clearly.

Translation and Interpretation Mistakes with Huge Consequences – Infographic

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