The pitfalls of bad translation: Funny, rude or downright wrong

Language is a fascinating thing. From semantics and dialects to slang and idioms, there’s always something new to learn, even if you’re a native speaker.

In the content marketing world, there are many language-related concepts that brands should be familiar with, whether it’s the fundamentals of syntax and grammar or the most effective way to use words in your calls to action and social media posts.

If you have ambitions to expand your business into new territories, you need to think very carefully about language and how you intend to use it to build connections and relationships with new audiences.

Why accurate translation is so difficult

When it comes to translation, the words themselves are only a small part of the challenge. Every word and sentence that we utter or write exists in a niche – be that semantic, conceptual, social or otherwise – within a far wider context. Nothing we say exists in complete isolation from the culture in which those words are fulfilling a purpose.

Attempting to identify that exact same purpose and express a precise meaning in another culture – especially one that is far removed from the culture of the source language – and conveying it with the same clarity and impact is, to put it mildly, a challenge.

While English may be the most prevalent language used on the internet, it is far from the only one. For the many businesses that have their sights set on international expansion, it pays to view marketing and translation as two closely related disciplines.

When both are done well, they complement each other. Making mistakes with your translations, however, can put your entire marketing strategy at risk, because your content could end up being unintentionally funny, rude or just plain wrong. Most likely, it will be a combination – if not all – of the above.

The perils of translation mistakes

There are many examples of brands that have either embarrassed themselves, and potentially risked serious reputational damage, by failing to do their research before launching marketing campaigns overseas.

When Swedish home appliances manufacturer Electrolux launched an advertising campaign promoting its vacuum cleaners in the US, it clearly failed to consider local slang when it went with the slogan ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’. KFC raised eyebrows in China when it attempted to introduce its slogan ‘Finger-lickin’ good’, which was translated as ‘Eat your fingers off’.

While there is nothing more entertaining than coming across amusing signage or questionable descriptions on menus when on holiday, no company wants to be the laughing stock of their sector.

Bad translation has the potential to make an absolute mockery of you and your brand – even if the words are, apparently, correctly translated.

Not only can it lead to laughs at your expense, but your translation could also end up being really quite rude. A marketing department that doesn’t respect the intricacies of localisation could end up offending prospective partners or clients.

Image credit: iStock/oatawa

The obvious example of this is the numerous languages that distinguish between different forms of ‘you’, depending on who an individual is talking to. In English, we only have the one form, but if we don’t respect that this is simply not the case with other languages, we might end up causing genuine offence, which is hardly ideal for drumming up business.

If it’s not funny and it’s not rude, it may just end up being plain wrong. You won’t entertain, you won’t offend, but nor will you make any sense whatsoever – and if that’s the case, your content becomes completely worthless.

To ensure you get the right results from your marketing in foreign markets, it’s crucial to work with reliable translators and language experts who can save you from embarrassment and cultural gaffes.

This is something Axonn has helped our clients with in the past.