Lost in Translation: The Greatest Hits

By Posted in - Marketing & Public Relations on March 11th, 2019

In 2009, HSBC Bank was ready to unveil its new “Assume Nothing” U.S. campaign overseas. The perfect slogan had been chosen, and all the campaign materials were prepped. It wasn’t until after it launched its campaign that HSBC realized it had missed one of the most crucial steps for any global campaign …

Communication. HSBC had not considered the language differences when taking its “Assume Nothing” campaign abroad. While this tagline was strategic in the United States, the translation in many foreign countries meant “do nothing,” which had the opposite effect that HSBC desired. After the campaign backfired, the bank spent almost $10 million to re-brand and play it safe with the modified tagline, “The world’s private bank,” (a little harder to misinterpret).

person holding pens and papers

Language and word translation differences across the globe are easy to overlook yet key to consider when taking a campaign abroad. Forgetting to do your research (or lacking knowledge about the chosen country for your next campaign) could leave you with a full-blown PR crisis on your hands.

A Pregnancy Preventing Pen

The Parker pens translation blunder is one of my personal favorites. Who knew such a product existed! When Parker first entered the Latin American market and introduced its product, the pen advertisements were supposed to read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company had mistakenly used the Spanish word “embarazar,” thinking it meant “to embarrass.” In reality, “embarazar” is the Spanish verb for pregnant. The translated slogan, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant,” most definitely caught the attention of locals, but not the attention that the Parker brand had been seeking.

two black and blue click pens on white book page

Taking ‘Naked Leather’ a Little Too Literally

Another famous translation blunder occurred in Mexico in 1987. Braniff Airlines unveiled its luxurious leather seats with the slogan, “Fly in leather.” Even though the Spanish translation “Vuela en Cuero,” was technically correct, it was almost identical to the phrase “en cueros” which means “naked.” When listeners heard the ad on the television or radio, they often heard “fly naked.” We can only imagine the kind of customers that jumped to book tickets for Braniff were not the ones the airline had in mind.

For every large corporation that’s made a translation blunder, there are countless examples of small businesses that have made the same mistakes.

airplane on sky during golden hour

Potatoes Find Newfound Fame

Rumor has it that when Pope John Paul II visited Miami in 1987, t-shirts were designed to say “I saw the Pope” in Spanish for locals and tourists alike. Instead of using “el Papa” (“the Pope”), a t-shirt manufacturer mistakenly substituted it for “la Papa” (‘the potato”). Somewhere in the creation of this t-shirt idea, the concept of the Spanish gender pronoun was forgotten. While the potato industry surely saw this as a bonus, we can only imagine the Pope’s reaction to the potato connotation.

Translation critiques and language understanding are must-dos for a global campaign, but it is not always about the literal translations. Making sure your team is knowledgeable on the cultural differences around the world is also crucial.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a … Peach?

One of Procter & Gamble’s biggest advertising uh-oh’s occurred in the late 1900s when the firm introduced its Pampers brand in Japan. The company used an advertisement that had resonated well with U.S. customers: an animated stork delivering Pampers diapers to a happy home.

Unfortunately, the cute commercial didn’t even come close to hitting its mark with Japanese consumers. They were confused as to why a bird was delivering diapers. Unlike Western folklore, storks are not supposed to deliver babies in Japan. If more research had been done, Procter & Gamble would’ve discovered that a 14th century fable in Japan reads that babies arrive in giant peaches, floating peacefully along rivers and streams to deserving parents. Move aside storks; peaches are in!

Time and time again, a simple lack of proper translation and research have left companies with an easily avoidable crisis. The stories are laughable years later, but doing your research could prevent you from being the next public relations professional that forgets to check the meaning of “embarazar” in Spanish.

What are your favorite translation blunders? Tell us here.

Written by Alex Davis-Isaac, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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