From Apple to Ikea, product names that get lost in translation

Apple announced the highly-anticipated iPhone5 yesterday, along with a slew of other new products, sending gadget geeks into a tizzy.

Before major events like this, the Apple store is always taken offline — and restored immediately after the launch of its shiniest new toy, complete with all the sexy specs and details. It’s a smart practice for a company whose every move is watched, analyzed, debated, criticized, or romanticized, depending on whom you ask.

Apple last announced a new iPhone (the 4S) in October 2011, when we were introduced to Siri — the voice-activated virtual assistant with eerily profound answers to “Where can I get a burrito?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” Still, critics pounced on the fact that “Siri” sounds awkwardly similar (though not exactly the same) as the word for buttocks in Japanese. Oops.

The fact is, product names don’t always translate well across cultures, and these kinds of blunders are becoming a growing trend as consumer goods spread across the globe like wildfire.We latch onto these examples because they’re a simple, funny way to illustrate the challenges we all face with language and understanding as the world becomes smaller. Certainly, Apple’s not alone in trying to tackle this.

Another famous example you may have heard is the Chevy Nova. As the story goes, the car was a huge flop in Latin America in the ’70s because no va means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. It’s even been cited in marketing textbooks as a classic example of a product name that doesn’t translate well in foreign markets. More recently, this has been debunked as something of a myth, and while the Nova may not have been a hit in Spanish-speaking markets, it wasn’t exactly a flop either.  Of course, what is true is that Toyota changed the name of the MR2 to MR for its French market, so it didn’t sound quite so much like merde.

These examples pale in comparison to Ikea, which has had so many product name mishaps, you could practically write a book on them. You almost have to wonder if at this point, it’s a conscious part of their marketing strategy to garner attention. After all, the Fartfull workbench and the Jerker desk haven’t seemed to stop consumers from flocking to their stores.

There are so many examples of translation pitfalls in today’s global economy, it’s impossible to list them all here (Huffington Post has a good roundup of the top 11, if you’re curious and in the mood for a chuckle — not even Pepsi and KFC are safe). The phenomenon’s even the subtext of the Broadway play Chinglish, which tells the story of an American businessman from a sign company, trying to win business in China. It highlights the hilarious, confusing, and occasionally offensive translations that happen from Chinese to English (and vice versa) despite our best intentions to try and understand each other.

It turns out there’s a reason why cultural communication firms are on the rise. Before breaking into a market, the smart thing for companies to do is consult native speakers who’ve been fully-immersed in the culture in question. For example, I might speak decent Hindi, but I can’t possibly understand the cultural context of northern India in the same way as someone who’s grown up there and can identify potentially embarrassing slang, double meanings, or homophones.

The way I see it, it’s better to swallow your pride now rather than find out later your translation has accidentally caused a major scandal.

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