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