In some respects the business world has never been smaller. Globalization, mass communication and the internet have all put new markets within reach for businesses of all sizes. But linguistic and cultural barriers still remain, and marketers need to take care when venturing across these divides.
Lost in translation
There are numerous instances of companies whose message has been lost in translation. When Pepsi took their slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” to Taiwan it was mistranslated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” - a claim that even the staunchest of Pepsi fans might have difficulty backing up. Not to be outdone, Kentucky Fried Chicken's famous “Finger lickin' good” was translated into Chinese as “Eat your fingers off.”
Companies are advised to check that their actual brand and product names give the right impression abroad. Ikea, for example, brought out a mobile work desk for kids. The name 'Fartfull' suggested speed and mobility in Swedish, but caused more of a stink elsewhere.
Good quality translation is clearly essential when taking your brand abroad. This ideally means working with native speaking translators. They will not only avoid linguistic errors, but can also identify any cultural issues and nuances that might otherwise be missed.
Attention to detail is obviously important in a major international marketing campaign, but the same rule should also be applied even if you are just localizing your website. Automatic translation tools such as Google Translate can be useful for getting the gist of foreign texts. But they’re prone to misunderstandings, contextual errors, and do not deal well with colloquialisms, slang, linguistic variations or commonly used acronyms and abbreviations.
English might remain the single most widely used language online, but it still represents only around a quarter of total usage. Studies have shown that customers place far more trust in websites in their own language. Localization can help you break into new markets, but a badly translated site can do as much harm as good.
There can also be issues arising from a lack of cultural understanding or foresight. As well as translating the language, consider the use of images carefully. Sexually charged images and innuendo can end up being more risky than risqué, and even images that may be considered relatively innocuous in your home market can cause grave offence in another.
Even the use of color can have different connotations within different cultures. In most of the western world, for example, white is associated with weddings and purity, while in India, Japan and China it is more likely to be associated with death and mourning. In Ireland, orange can have political and religious connotations. Using an inappropriate color scheme is unlikely to cause rioting in the streets but it can set the wrong tone and trigger a negative subconscious response in viewers.
A knowledge of slang, colloquialisms and naughty words in particular can also come in handy. Like many other companies, Swedish medical suppliers Locum sent Christmas cards to their customers. It's a little touch that can mean a lot - but their seasonally loved up logo took on a different meaning in North America and the UK.
The above example might have been no more than a faux pas that raised a chuckle and provided a few red faces, but some mistakes are far more serious. They can also occur not just when dealing with foreign markets but also within a single multicultural market.
In 2002 the British sportswear company Umbro (which would later be bought out by Nike) was forced to withdraw its Zyklon range of running shoes and issue a hasty apology. 'Zyklon' means 'cyclone' in German, which may have been an appropriate name for a running shoe if not for some unfortunate and horrible connotations. Zyklon B was the trade name of the poison used by Nazis to murder Jews and other concentration camp victims during World War II.
Dr Stephen Smith, co-founder of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, said: "Commercial appropriation of words carrying connotations of mass murder is utterly unacceptable.”
It’s important to give careful thought to potential cultural oversights and misunderstandings. Native-speaking translators can again help avoid mistakes and faux pas and, at the very least, material should be tested with a sample group from the target market. Without a little attention to detail it can be relatively easy for a company to either make itself a laughing stock or, even worse, to cause serious offence and alienate a huge swathe of potential customers.
About the author
Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, a top translation service in the USA. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over forty million words for businesses in every industry sector, including the likes of MTV, World Bank and American Express. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter: @Lingo24.