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Going International? Learn the Language

With the reach that the Internet can give your business into foreign markets, there is great opportunity to grow and prosper. There is also a real chance that your business efforts overseas could run into some real snags, especially when it comes to your overseas marketing efforts.

Bad Translations at Work
We have all heard the apocryphal—and completely debunked—tale of the disastrous Central and South American introduction of the Chevy Nova (no va, in Spanish, means “won’t go”). If that one, however, is untrue, there are others that have actually taken place. Some of these include:

Coca-Cola: Bite the Wax Tadpole
Back in 1928, when Coke first entered the Chinese market, they had to choose 4 Chinese characters to represent the sounds Ko Ka Ko La. The problem was that they pursued this phonetic needle in the haystack of Chinese characters with no regard to what the characters they finally chose would mean. Depending on the dialect, the characters they finally chose could mean:
  • Bite the wax tadpole
  • Wax-flattened mare
  • Female horse fastened with wax
Happily, once they realized the mistake, they rectified it, changing the characters so that the meaning came out as “Something palatable from which one receives pleasure.” A vast improvement over a waxy tadpole!
Pepsi Cola: Raise the Dead
There was no question about the translation of Pepsi’s slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation.” The Chinese translation for this came out as, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” That might explain the poor sales figures.
The American Dairy Association: A Question for New Mothers Everywhere
You shouldn’t think that this only happens in China. Remember the highly successful “Got Milk?” campaign? Well, they decided to take it south of the border into Mexico, where “Got Milk?” was promptly translated and slapped on billboards all over the place. Unfortunately, it was translated as, "Are you lactating?" Where is the La Leche League when you need them?
Coors: Beer and Pepto-Bismal, The Breakfast of Champions
More slogan issues, this time with Coors Beer. When Coors decided to go after the Central and South American market, they had a slogan that said, “Turn It Loose.” It worked in the US, so why wouldn’t it work somewhere else, right? Perhaps it would have, except they translated their slogan to mean, "Suffer From Diarrhea." Could it be the water?
Electrolux. A Strong Word of Caution from the Manufacturer
Another slogan, and this time it’s a foreign company trying to market something here in the United States. See, it happens here, too. Some time ago, the Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux came up with a slogan for their American advertising campaign. Here is what they came up with: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux." Consider yourself warned.
Picture This: Photos from Around the World
The following are some images from our friends at of everyday things overseas that show it isn’t just the big stuff you have to watch, it is the little things as well. Remember: if your packaging or signage is being printed overseas, you will need to pay a great deal of attention.
Literal vs. Literary
All fun aside, the common factor here is that these companies went ahead with translations that were totally unsuited for the markets they wished to penetrate and a major reason for that was the literal nature of their translations. Language is more than just a system of sounds and symbols that have some meaning attached to them, things that you can plug in and replace at whim. Meanings change over time (Do you remember when “gay” meant “happy?”) and there are usually many ways to say the same thing, some of which are more appropriate than others, and many terms have double meanings. Sure, an Electrolux machine sucks, so do Kirbys and Hoovers, but it is still a good vacuum cleaner.

What you need to do is concentrate on a literary translation of what you want to say. By that I mean you need to concentrate on the concept you are trying to get across rather than the exact wording. If Electrolux had done that, then they would have said something like “Nothing picks up like an Electrolux;” or Pepsi could have discussed how bona fide living people could feel better and have more energy rather than the necromantic possibilities of their cola. 

The Bottom Line
The fact is that the Internet has made international business a possibility for companies of all sizes and if you decide to go down that road, remember that the language you use when trying to do business overseas is of extraordinary importance. How you translate English into other tongues, or translate those languages into English, will have a profound effect on your marketing efforts. Forget translating your brand name, leave that as is; but as for your slogans, make sure that it is the idea that is translated, not necessarily the words. Do that and you could avoid joining the winners sited above on the wall of fame.
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