Examples of bad localisation and gold-standard localisation

By localisation we mean adapting the translation to the culture of the language that the text is being translated into. Why is localisation so important?

People often think they can translate a website, slogan, or product name themselves. They often entrust texts to online translators or employees with language skills. But translations done in this way can either lead to a laughable situation or, in the worst-case scenario, a business disaster.

So what does bad localisation look like in practice?

Example 1 – Schweppes

When the Swiss company Schweppes decided to expand to Italy and sell its Schweppes Tonic Water product there, an unfortunate mistake made by the translator resulted in Italians having to buy Schweppes Toilet Water, which certainly wouldn’t have appealed to everyone’s taste. This mistranslation could be seen in two ways: “eau de toilette” like a perfume or simply “water from the toilet”. However, neither of these is the right way to quench your thirst.

Example 2 – Electrolux

The Swedish company Electrolux decided to supply its vacuum cleaners to the United States. But they didn’t exactly choose the most fortunate slogan: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” You might say, well yeah, vacuums do technically “suck up” dirt and debris. But the reality is that Americans won’t see it that way. To them, “sucks” in this context means “terrible” or “bad quality”, so it’s no wonder that perhaps this campaign is the reason why Electrolux vacuum cleaners never caught on in the US.

Example 3 – General Motors

When General Motors introduced its new Chevy Nova in South America, they were completely flabbergasted as to why not one single vehicle of this premium model had been sold after several months of it being launched. It was only when they began to analyse their business failure more closely that they found “no va” meant “not working, not driving” in Spanish. They immediately renamed the car model “Caribe”, and it was no surprise that sales in South American markets instantly went up.

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Example 4 – Pepsi

To help maintain a unified identity, large corporations tend to use the same marketing campaign and slogans in different countries. However, little did Pepsi know that this would cause mixed reactions amongst the people of Taiwan. The advertising slogan “Revive the Pepsi generation” translated as “Pepsi will raise your ancestors from the dead“, so people with fears of a zombie apocalypse clearly avoided drinking Pepsi.

Example 5 – American Airlines

One day, American Airlines decided to promote flying luxury business class in Mexico, particularly with its comfortable leather seats. The slogan “flying in leather” was translated into Spanish as “vuelo del cuero“. However, what the Spanish dictionary failed to tell them was that the phrase also meant “flying naked“. It soon became clear that Mexican entrepreneurs weren’t interested in this form of naturism for several kilometres, which didn’t help ticket sales very much.

Example 6 – Pepsodent toothpaste

In southeast China, there’s an old tradition that people brush their teeth with a special black dye. This custom has been practiced there for over 1,500 years and is a sign of exceptional beauty, especially for women, but men are also no exception. But the American toothpaste company Pepsodent should have consulted with the local people first before launching its product onto the Asian market. Maybe then they would understand why their product with the slogan “perfectly white teeth” was met with such disinterest.

Example 7 – Hurt-Wesson beans (bad translation but good sales)

Hurt-Wesson decided to distribute its beans in tomato sauce under the name Big John to the French provinces of Canada and adapted the translation of this name to those regions. Unfortunately, they didn’t realise that the new French name “Gros Jos” meant “big tits“. Surprisingly, the beans have been a great success, especially amongst the male population. I wonder why?
These are just a few examples of how poor localisation can put companies in undesirable situations. Sometimes going with the cheapest option no matter what can be a bad idea. It’s better to rely on the services of a certified professional translator than to risk your product becoming an internet meme.

It's a dream come true for me to work for a company where I trust the people and the services 100%. Peter Drucker was right about one thing: "The best way to predict the future is to create it," which is why it'll be my pleasure to brief you on the future direction of the translation sphere as well as the hidden pitfalls of marketing.