Bite the Wax Tadpole, and other Tales of Translation

Executive Editor
Published 6/20/13
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It’s a typical Thursday morning here at Miles, and I’m sitting in my little green cloth enclosure, wrapped up in granny-sweater protest against the arctic chill of our over-achiever AC system, and sipping my delicious 7-Eleven 100% Colombian Brew. Except it’s not a typical Thursday morning because I am laughing hard enough that coworkers are stopping by to check on me.

What’s tickled my funny bone this morning is the Google results delivered for the search term “translation blunders.”

Not having fact-checked through primary sources, I can’t give an iron-clad guarantee of their veracity, but they make the point just the same. Here are some I liked:

Coca-Cola in China: When Coke first decided to enter the China market in the late 1920s, it needed to find Chinese characters that would approximate the sound of “Coca-Cola” without mangling the meaning. Meanwhile, shop keepers were so excited to have this delightfully sweet and invigorating product that they printed signs for their store windows with characters that sounded very much like “ko-ka-ko-la” – but which could possibly be interpreted as “female horse fastened with wax” or, even better, “bite the wax tadpole.” As you might imagine, Chinese consumers were confused about this bold statement for the new American drink. After careful research, Coke decided on four Chinese characters with a similar sound, but which translated, loosely mean “to allow the mouth to rejoice.”

Sales of the Ford Pinto in Brazil: In the 1970s, Ford Motor Company found out later than it would have liked to that “Pinto” is Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” The car was quickly renamed the “Corcel,” which means “horse.”

Practicing “Safe Pen”: When fine pen-maker Parker Pen was creating ads for the Mexican market, the company wanted to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” The word “embarazar” was mistakenly used for “embarrass” and the ad read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” Which was especially good news for the Mexican Parker Pen peeps who kept pens in their pockets (99% of whom were men).

Seen on product packaging for Mr. Friendly Quality Eraser, manufactured in Japan: “We are ecologically minded. This package will self-destruct in Mother Earth.” (This mention was included in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors.)

Not translated, but should have been: “Hawai’i has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States that is an island that is right here.” Dan Quail, when addressing the press in Hawai’i, April 25, 1989. (Sorry to dig up old sins, Dan.)

Giggles aside, anyone who’s ever tried to translate/ localize/ transcreate content for international audiences – particularly content that is meant to entice consumers to buy your product, or visit your destination – knows that this isn’t a job for the weak-at-heart. I’ve worked on a number of large-scale programs for international audiences in my 24 years at Miles, the latest and most exciting of which is our work with Brand USA.

In order to get top-quality translations for the new Discover America Inspiration Guide as well as several in-market printed inserts we created this year, we were careful with due diligence:

  • We didn’t choose based solely on price – translations are not a commodity buy.
  • We didn’t just choose a translation company, we chose individual linguists. By this, I mean that we provided source copy that represented the brand and our subject matter well. We asked our preferred translation company to provide sample translations from three linguists for each language.
  • The next step was working with Brand USA’s GSAs (General Service Agents, aka in-country reps), to ask those in-country experts to choose the best person for the job. If they felt that no one was a stand-out, we went back to the drawing board.
  • As advocates of the brand in their own countries, Brand USA’s GSAs reviewed all translated copy to ensure that the voice was consistent, and the quality was high.
  • Once the copy was adapted and approved, it was placed on the pages, and we collaborated with the GSAs through several additional rounds of proofing. Even with good check-points in place, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. The most important thing is to take the appropriate steps to retain meaning and context, and to represent your brand well.

In addition to the guide, we’re excited to be working on a groundbreaking program for Brand USA (Erin Marvin wrote about it in this blog post): The In-Language Content Program, which offers destinations an opportunity to build in-language content assets (videos, travel articles, photographs with accompanying metadata) to distribute through their own channels as well as Brand USA’s. This program is unique because our native hosts help shape the content, providing input on their own cultural perspectives and world-view. I encourage you to check out the In-Language Program content at www.DiscoverAmerica.com/traveljournals, and to return often, since new content is being posted all the time.

I’ll end this blog post with some favorite “lost in translation” phrases from friend and coworker Marianne Sibille, who is a wonderfully funny person and a citizen of the world (being Venezuelan and Dutch by birth, educated in America, and now a resident of Varna, Bulgaria). Just because thinking of her always makes me smile. Here goes: “Right from the gecko.” “Put your hands in your hair!” “Whip the crack!” “Out of the bloom.” “Tanks God.” “Don’t pull the worms out of the can.” “Think free as Willy.”