Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Car Doesn’t Run? Try Translation!

The last post was on internationalization and I mentioned advertising as something that needs to be carefully translated. I heard about an example of bad advertising translation in regard to Coca-Cola. The soda company tried to translate its “Coke adds life” ad to Japanese and ended up with “Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead.” Slight difference there!

Careful translation isn’t just limited to ads, but also affects product names and the instructions for using said products. A well-known example is the Chevrolet Nova car, which didn’t sell well in Mexico, since “no va” means “it doesn’t go.” Bill Bryson featured a funny example of poorly translated instructions in his book “The Mother Tongue.” On a package of Italian food, he found, “Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in an only couch.”

A Wall Street Journal article on the importance of translation and adaption offers the following statistics from a survey done by a translation company a few years ago: “Close to 50% simply tune out the message of an ad if it is poorly translated. About 65% said bad translations show a lack of caring about the consumer, while nearly a third said it would hinder their loyalty to a product.”

A company can’t afford to waste time, effort, and money on mistranslations. Consumers may laugh at bad translations of ads, product names, or instructions, but the real question is whether they ultimately will avoid the company’s products. Mistranslation simply “doesn’t go.”


Anonymous said...

Don't tell me you fell for the Chevy "Nova/no-va" myth! Check it out at Snopes (including a linguistic explanation of why it doesn't make sense): As the author of the Snopes article concludes, "The Chevy Nova legend lives on in countless marketing textbooks, is repeated in numerous business seminars, and is a staple of newspaper and magazine columnists who need a pithy example of human folly. Perhaps someday this apocryphal tale will become what it should be: an illustration of how easily even 'experts' can sometimes fall victim to the very same dangers they warn us about."

And here's a personal note: here in Mexico City, the Nova was so popular that you still see the occasional one on the street today, nearly 30 years after they were discontinued.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment and the link. I definitely read it in several publications, including a recent one, so, if it is in fact not true, I guess lots of people are under the impression that it is!
Nevertheless, the point is that companies need to pay more attention to what they are doing when they are working in foreign markets. I have personally seen many poor translations, so I know this is a real problem.

Best wishes,