Sales May Be Lost In Translation

Translation blunders have long been a source of amusement to consumer targets overseas. While these mistakes often make consumers giggle or blush, they are anything but funny to companies that lose credibility, respect or business as a result of an incorrect translation or cultural misstep.


The worst offenders are companies whose slogans appear to have been translated directly from a dictionary by someone who does not speak the language. Frank Perdue's famous slogan, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" was plastered on billboards across Mexico in a translation that amounted to "It takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate."

Even when the translation is correct, it is important to remember that certain words may have connotations in one culture that they do not have in another. In England, a Swedish vacuum cleaner company used the slogan "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux." In the United States, where "sucks" is slang for something of poor quality, the ad campaign failed miserably.



Other companies may get the words right, but create advertisements that are out of sync with the culture they are targeting. For example, a U.S. telephone company was ignorant about cultural relevancy when airing a television advertisement in South America in which a woman asks her husband to call a friend to say they would be late for dinner. This made no sense to local women, who weren't likely to ask their husbands to complete a chore, much less be concerned about arriving late for dinner.

Machine translation, in which text is translated by a software program, has opened the floodgates on potential translation errors. In China, a restaurateur eager to attract an international clientele decided to display the restaurant's English name on the storefront next to its Chinese name. Unfortunately, the machine translation application he chose to perform the task was not working at the moment, and his restaurant now bears the English name "Translate server error."

While these examples are not likely to produce much more than a snicker from the tourists at whom they are directed, other translation errors can result in consequences that are far from humorous. In 2007, CNN was barred from working in Iran because it incorrectly translated statements made by the president regarding the country's nuclear research. In healthcare, two out of every three mistranslations have clinical consequences, according to a 2003 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to an article by Dr. Glenn Flores published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one hospital paid $71 million in a malpractice suit as a result of poor translation. A Spanish-speaking 18-year-old collapsed after telling his girlfriend he felt "intoxicado." When the girlfriend and her mother repeated the word to English-speaking paramedics, they assumed it meant "intoxicated" rather than "nauseated" and treated the patient for drug overdose. When the patient was reevaluated, it was found that he was suffering from hematomas (blood clots) around his brain. The misdiagnosis resulted in quadriplegia, a condition that could have been prevented with accurate translation.

From the embarrassing to the deadly, translation mistakes come at a high cost. They can be avoided by using professional translators. The American Translators Association distributes a guide online and in print aimed at helping people buy translation services. The brochure, "Translation: Getting It Right," offers the following suggestions:

  • Must it be translated? Get rid of unnecessary information before translating.
  • Use pictures instead of text whenever possible.
  • Avoid cultural clichés, literary references and sports metaphors that do not make sense in other countries.
  • Differentiate between translation needed for information only and translation for publication. Will an accurate, unpolished translation be sufficient, or are you trying to persuade or convey an image?
  • Tell the translators what it's for. Make sure they know the type of publication and the target audience.
  • The more technical the subject, the more important it is to have a translator who knows it inside out.
  • Typographical conventions vary from one language to the next. For example, neither months nor days of the week are capitalized in French and Spanish. Do not "correct" translated text to follow an English convention.

Whether one is an official at the CIA, Dell Computer or even a local county government, translation and interpretation mistakes can be costly, or even disastrous. Companies simply cannot risk getting a translation wrong.

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