Lost in Translation: 6 Embarrassing Mistakes to Learn From

There’s an old joke involving a monk, living in a monastery, spending his days translating ancient texts. He’s spent his entire life doing this, living under the very ‘restrictive’ rules of monastic life. Then one day, as he’s working, he lets out a tormented yell that can be heard for miles. ‘Oh no! The word was, celebrate!’

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There’s an old joke involving a monk, living in a monastery, spending his days translating ancient texts. He’s spent his entire life doing this, living under the very ‘restrictive’ rules of monastic life. Then one day, as he’s working, he lets out a tormented yell that can be heard for miles. ‘Oh no! The word was, celebrate!’

The joke is fictitious, but the premise behind it is very real. Translation mistakes have impacted several brands. While funny translation mistakes may be good for a laugh, these mistakes can cause significant embarrassment, even offense. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that anything that is translated is absolutely spot on. Check out these language translation mistakes in advertising and marketing.

A Very Pregnant Pen

When Parker Pens decided to begin selling their products in Mexico, their catchphrase was ‘It Won’t Leak in Your Pocket and Embarrass You.’ Somehow, this was given a Spanish translation that meant, ‘It Won’t Leak in Your Pocket and Make You Pregnant’. This mistake was the result of someone thinking that the Spanish word embarazar meant ‘embarrass’. It does not. Instead, it means impregnate.

Defeating Sheng Long

Street Fighter II is an extraordinarily popular video game that originated in Japan. It was later translated for English speaking audiences. In the Japanese version one of the characters states, ‘If you cannot overcome the rising dragon punch, you cannot win!’ Somehow in translation the Japanese characters that meant rising dragon became ‘Shen Long’.

In this case, it wasn’t exactly a translator mistake. The translator was given a list of phrases but had no contextual information. Those Japanese characters can mean both Shen Long and rising dragon. The translator thought the phrase was referring to a new video game character.

When the game was released in English speaking countries, players drove themselves crazy trying to defeat this Shen Long character. Of course, he never existed.

No! We Will Not Wash Our Clothes with That!

Paxam is an Iranian consumer goods company that sells a variety of products. One of these is laundry detergent. In the original, Farsi language the detergent was called ‘Snow’. That’s a great name for laundry detergent. Unfortunately, when this was translated into English for labeling purposes, the packages all said ‘Barf’.

Seems Fair to Us

When the concept of Valentine's day was introduced to Japan, there was a bit of a mix-up. Somehow one of the chocolate companies marketing the idea gave people the idea that Valentine's day was a day when women gave men chocolates and other gifts.

To their credit, the candy and greeting card industry in Japan made a nice recovery. They established March 14th as the day that men return the favor and shower women with gifts.

Rush to Die

Sometimes, a correct translation can lead to embarrassing results. That’s why we have localization specialists to ensure that things mean exactly what you think they will. For example, Mercedes Benz was first transliterated as ‘Benzi’. That means a rush to die. Obviously, that isn’t what people want to be associated with a car company. Eventually, this was changed to ‘Benchi’. This means run quickly as if flying.

An Embarrassing Translation Mistake for Pampers

When P & G started to distribute Pampers in Japan, they used the familiar picture of a stork delivering a baby. Unfortunately, sales stayed in a slump. Nobody could figure out a way. It turns out that customers were very confused by the packaging. They simply didn’t understand what the stork was doing. That was just something that wasn’t part of the cultural narrative in Japan. Instead, legend has it that large peaches bring babies to expecting parents.

Conclusion: Avoiding Mistakes in Transcription and Translation

The key to avoiding these embarrassing mistakes is using a professional translation and localization. Then, test any translations with a native audience. This will help to catch any mistranslations that fall through the cracks.

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