Lost in translation: Disastrous foreign renderings of American brand names and ad slogans

Jolly_Green_Giant

During my undergraduate days, I learned from one of my communication professors that the Coca-Cola company ran into an unexpected complication during their initial incursions into Chinese markets when the very name of the product caused mass confusion. Apparently, the syllables “ko-ka-ko-la” are nonsensical in Mandarin, where they can be taken to mean, roughly, “bite the wax tadpole.” (It was just a few years P.I. — Pre-Internet — when I first learned this factoid. Today, there’s a well-sourced Snopes article about it.) In the same vein, this professor passed along the info, which I’ve since seen verified elsewhere, that the Jolly Green Giant brand had trouble in Saudi Arabia because its name lost all of that endearing jolliness when translated into Arabic, and came out meaning something closer to “Intimidating Green Ogre.”

This was all brought to mind yesterday by a passage in an article at Pacific Standard that had me literally laughing out loud even as it I was relishing the delicious irony that’s evident in the fact that the world of corporate marketing and advertising, which long ago sold its soul to the demons of emotional propaganda, has found itself repeatedly stymied by the inherently idiomatic and connotative nature of the very  language it seeks to exploit and manipulate for emotional-economic ends.

There’s also something intrinsically diverting about the news that the Pepsi company inadvertently aligned itself with Taiwanese shamanism:

For all of the research they put into expansion abroad, even with concessions to the local markets, not all American exports are guaranteed hits. Wendy’s closed all of its Japanese outposts in 2009, but returned two years later with a new local partner and a wasabi avocado burger. In 2011, Panda Express announced, all jokes aside, that it was expanding into China, but hasn’t said much about it since then. In his book Brand Failures, Matthew Haig gathered examples of bad luck ruining a corporation’s best-laid plans for global domination: how Vicks’ expansion was stymied because its name sounds like “fuck” in German; how Coors’ old slogan “turn it loose” fell flat in Spain because it translated as “you will suffer from diarrhea”; and how Pepsi promised more than its elixir could deliver when it burst into Taiwan with the slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” which translated locally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

Full article: “The World’s Weird America: How Some of Our Most Popular Products Are Seen Overseas

Image by greefus groinks (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, edited for use here

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on February 27, 2014, in Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. That’s an all to timely incident to bring up for discussion, especially today in this uber-digital era, where countries and continents are so capable of communicating toward one another with relative ease, tweets, posts, and the like.

    For me personally I enjoy writing film reviews over the Eastern variety of producing countries (China, Japan, and South Korea, sometimes Thai 🙂 ), and I’m always finding details in plots, props, and characterizations that, on paper, in their native language, make the best of sense; when international versions are cut and dubbed however, the meanings are, sometimes, very, very different.

    At first it’s laughable, I suppose, but it’s a very serious matter altogether, especially if we’re to understand other cultural implications at hand in materials.

    I’m just glad it’s being brought up to the surface. It’s necessary. Thx for sharing.
    😀

    • I’ve been a fan of international cinema in general and Asian, especially Chinese, cinema specifically since I was a kid. Of course, my introduction to Chinese and Hong Kong cinema was via the chop-socky genre of “Black Belt Theater” kung fu movies that I watched endlessly in my teens (thank you, USA Network!), so it wasn’t until I was a bit older and a little more astute that I began to learn of the vast difference that can exist between dialogue in the original language and the dialogue as translated in subtitles or (God help us) overdubbed audio. This really alarmed me when it came to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is very special to me.

  2. Matt, I thought I’d weigh in on the Coca Cola in Chinese thing – the actual translation is “ke kou ke le” and it’s true that as a whole the 4 characters (可口可乐) don’t “mean” a whole lot more than the name Coca Cola (ke le being the neologism for cola), taken individually they mean “can (as in capable or can be) mouth can be happy”. Ok…

    Now, I’ve always said it backward (as a non-native and not very fluent speaker) “kou ke ke le” which makes it “thirsty cola… ” I kind of like my version but I think I tell you this just to agree that a) translation is weird and b) advertising in translation is even weirder.

    Also, I came across this short video today that really reminded me of you (& Teeming Brain): http://youtu.be/yPdgxDNxo-8

    • I appreciate the Coca-Clarification, Wendy, as I’m sure the rest of the readers here do. 🙂

      Thanks for the video link, too. About halfway through it I began to understand why it would have brought The Teeming Brain to mind. An apocalyptic deluge of images and ideas occasioned by the very fact of our superhumanly extended powers of communication via digital-age technology, underlaid by an eerily brooding reflective narration whose very purpose is simply to express a self-conscious awareness about the whole thing and its apocalyptic quality. Yes, I see where you’re going with this…

    • Whoa — I just found that the “Our Satisfying Conclusion” video has been posted by its creator, Henrik Dahle, to the Website for the Dark Mountain Project. I’ve mentioned this project a couple of time in passing here. Their manifesto really hit me hard when I read it in 2009. Casting a very wide net, we are, with many synchronistic returns.

      • yep 🙂 you summed it up quite nicely!

        I found Dark Mountain through other routes, but it does lead me to think maybe I ought to “get out” more if my supposedly diverse interests and favorites are converging!

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