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How To Avoid An Epic Advertising Translation Fail

advertising translation tips

avoiding advertising translation errors
Imagine accidentally promising customers you’ll bring their ancestors back from the dead?

This well-known Pepsi marketing blunder is just one of many great examples that show us the importance of good advertising translation. 

Pepsi’s 1960s advertising campaign with the slogan: “Come Alive! You’re In The Pepsi Generation” was accidently translated in Chinese to something along the lines of: “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” 

While the jury’s still out on whether this one’s an urban legend or not, a few simple tricks could help you avoid suffering the same advertising translation fate. 

Steer clear of direct translations 

English may be the new “lingua franca”, but it doesn’t work well with direct translations.  

Remember that famous American dairy tag line: “Got Milk?” Well, directly translated to Spanish it asks: “Are you lactating?” 

This translation was especially unfortunate, , when you consider the recent expansion of the Latino market. In one of our blogs, JR Language reported that a steady growth in demographics and earnings has been the driving force behind companies shifting their approach to Latino audiences in the last 20 years. 

On the subject of direct translations for advertising translation: Google Translate is not reliable for such purposes.   . Go ahead and use it for simple conversational translations, but without context or nuance, you’re unlikely to get an accurate translation. 

Take the proverb “to kill two birds with one stone”, for example. Enter the sentence into Google Translate and the results are pretty funny. 

The German translation is “Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe erschlagen”, which when translated back to English again reads: ” Two flies slapped with one flap.”

It’s also important to understand that people use languages differently. Just the differences between American and UK English are enough to throw confusion into the works.

Take the word “football”. For American English speakers, it refers to a field full of heavily padded athletes with an oval shaped ball. In England, it’s the name for soccer, the game with the round ball. 

Get to know the locals 

Effective advertising translation is about more than just vocabulary. 

It’s not enough to just speak your customer’s language, you have to place the message in the context of culture as well.

When Gerber started selling their baby food in Africa, they couldn’t understand why locals weren’t buying their product. Turns out, the cute, iconic baby featured on their packaging meant something else to their new customers. 

Due to low literacy levels in Africa at the time, packaging usually included an image of what the package contained. Their shell-shocked consumers thought the smiling, caucasian baby indicated that the product actually contained baby parts. 

An interesting side note to mention here is that the product also had to be rebranded in France where “Gerber” translates to “vomit”. 

Similarly, when Proctor and Gamble entered the Japanese market with their Pampers disposable diapers, they chose to retain their packaging image of a stork carrying a baby. That was confusing for Japanese moms who were never taught the stork story Western audiences know. In Japanese folklore, babies are brought by giant floating peaches. So Images, packaging, colors, signs are as important as words in marketing and advertising translations.

Cultural awareness, or cultural competence as it’s sometimes referred to, will not only help you avoid bad advertising translation, it also shows your respect for customers, which goes a long way in creating brand trust. 

Make sure your name works globally

The name of your business or product might seem just fine in your own language, but what does it mean when it’s translated?

Campaign Asia tells the humorous story of Vicks who only after entering the German market learned that their name would be pronounced with an “F” instead of a “V”. This turned their harmless brand into a sexual one. 

Similarly, when Puffs promoted their tissues in Germany, they discovered that the word “puffs” is German slang for a brothel. 

It is extremely important to research names, usages and implications in your new target markets and languages, before choosing a name; in doing so, you will avoid choosing a wrong name while translating your brand and products. 

That’s exactly what Kodak did. The photography company’s short, simple name has no meaning at all, but it’s easy to pronounce in any language. 

Don’t underestimate the power of a good translation company

Not all translation companies are created equal. You are looking for a trusted and experienced partner that can help you reach a global audience.

Language Translation is an art, involving creativity and research, a good translation company has the team to recreate your masterpiece, complete with nuance, context, and creativity in another language.

 The right translation company can offer an effective translation team, tailored to your advertising translation needs, and assign translators who know the language and understand the culture you want to be communicating in. 

It is extremely important to provide your translation team with as much information as you can. They’ll need to know who you want to advertise to, where you intend to advertise and what tone to convey. 

While hiring a professional translator or translation agency may seem like an expense, considering the expense of having to do damage control when advertising translation goes wrong, it’s an investment to extend your market reach. 

Good advertising translation will pay for itself in the long run. 

Final Word on Advertising Translation

The simplest way to ensure good advertising translation is to make sure you know who you are talking to and the best way to communicate that message in their language. 

Always test your translations on native speakers to check if your message is being conveyed as you intended, before releasing any advertising. 

Don’t shy away from using translation agencies. Companies like JR Language Translation Services, for example, offer both professional translation and interpretation services, with a full team on hand and ready to help you. 

Jackie Ruffolo
Jackie Ruffolo
Jackie was born in Venezuela. Jackie has a BS in computer engineering; As president of JR Language, she spends time researching new technology and productivity tools for the company. She holds a certificate of Localization and Project Management- Localization. Through her many years of experience working in multilingual corporate environments, she understands firsthand the value of bridging language barriers in creating smooth communication that allows for productive and happy work environments. She is fluent in Spanish and English, and is a frequent contributor to both our English and Spanish blogs.