When Translation Goes Wrong: How to Avoid Offending Your Clientele (Or Making Them Laugh at You)

Quink BottleIn both a global and localized market, [email protected] marketing is on the rise, and for good reason. The [email protected] client base is growing rapidly in the US, and internet access around the world is becoming more widespread and faster than ever. Even so, many companies over the years have failed to translate their product and service names and descriptions correctly, leading to a number of cringe-worthy errors.

Common Types of English to Spanish Mistranslations

These translation snafus are often hilarious to spectators (see also: the rather politically incorrect popularity of websites such as “engrish.com”), but can also offend the target audience. Let’s talk about some failed translations in real marketing campaigns, and how to avoid alienating a [email protected] audience with unfortunate mistranslations.

False Cognates, False Friends

English-to-Spanish translation can be deceptively easy. There are a lot of words in English that have corresponding cognates in Spanish. Cognates, words that sound similar or the same across both languages, include the obvious: “obstruction” becomes “obstrucción,” “garage” becomes “garaje,” and so on. There are literally thousands of English-to-Spanish cognates.

Unfortunately, many marketing agencies fall into the trap of false cognates, which are words that sound similar in English and Spanish but actually have entirely different meanings. Some of these are more innocuous than others: “carpeta” is not a carpet but a file folder – definitely a mistake, but this doesn’t compare to other extremely unfortunate translation snafus.

In Spanish, false cognates are referred to as “false friends” – and in the case of Parker Pens, their ad for their Quink pen product, the false cognate for “embarrassment” is just the beginning. Parker Pen marketed their Quink product under the pretext that it “won’t leak and embarrass you.” Unfortunately, “embarazar” in Spanish is “to impregnate.” So while Parker Pen was right – the Quink pen will not, in fact, make you pregnant – this ended up being a pretty serious mistake on their part.

Failed Figures of Speech

Sometimes, agencies get the translation about halfway there. If the literal word-for-word translation is correct at first glance, many companies leave it at that. Unfortunately, in the case of Braniff International Airways, the promise of comfort – “Fly in Leather” when you fly first-class – ended up sounding seriously uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the direct translation is “Vuela en cuero,” which, while correct, is a little too close to “Vuela en cueros” – literally, “fly in the nude.” It’s no wonder that the company ceased operations in 1982.

Basic translation protocol across genres reminds translators that a literal word-for-word translation is not usually the way to go. In order to stay attuned to the nuances of the target language, it’s important to remember that all languages and encompassing regions have slang and figures of speech.

What to Do?

It’s about simple cultural sensitivity: failing to translate well means consumers believe that the company or agency in question simply doesn’t care about them. If potential buyers don’t believe that your agency cares about their specific needs, then you’ve lost your audience. They may well be rolling their eyes and laughing at you.

Fortunately, avoiding simple mistranslation errors is actually very simple. The best way to mess up in translation is to use an online translator like Google Translate or even a reputable one like WordReference. Automatic translators are great tools for conversational English-to-Spanish translations, but when it comes to marketing and advertising, they should be avoided at all costs.

The best thing to do? Avoid imprecise word-for-word translations by soliciting help from a native Spanish speaker or professional agency with expertise in both the language and culture – including regional slang.

What if your company already screwed up? The best way to respond to this is to acknowledge your error, apologize (sincerely!), fix it, and then move on.

Have you had any difficulties with translation in your marketing efforts?

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Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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