Lost in Translation Time and again, product names in foreign lands have come back to haunt even the most brilliant of marketers.
By Mark Lasswell

(Business 2.0) – A vacation in France for Americans who have a zippy Toyota MR2 roadster back home provides a rare opportunity to feel smug around the French. After all, French drivers are still poking along in the MR model while we're driving the undoubtedly superior next-generation MR2, right? Not quite. The two cars are identical, except the French version doesn't sound like crap. Or, rather, it doesn't sound like "M-R-deux"--which, when spoken with a breezy French accent, sounds a lot like merde.

"They call it the MR because MR2 doesn't sound very nice in French," admits Toyota spokeswoman Allison Takahashi. "MR2" must have seemed to Toyota like a safe, content-free designation ideal for the international marketplace, where drumming up product names that successfully cross all borders is notoriously tricky. (Witness Buick's recent scramble to rename its new LaCrosse sedan the Allure in Canada after discovering that the name comes awfully close to a Quebecois word for masturbation.)

But that's also what Mercedes-Benz thought when it shortened the name of its Grand Sports Tourer, which launches in 2005, to the sleek, succinct GST. The French, presumably, don't have a problem with those initials, but in Canada (again!) GST is the acronym for the widely loathed goods and services tax, also known as the "gouge and screw tax." Which presents Canucks with the prospect of calculating the GST on the GST.

"The moral for cowardly automobile manufacturers who try to avoid language problems by using numbers and letters is that if the demon of culture has decided to come and get you, it will come and get you no matter what," says Simon Anholt, a British marketing maven whose 2000 book, Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising, has become a cautionary bible in college marketing classes.

The age of globalization, unfortunately, offers that culture demon countless ankles to bite. Take Ikea, which (as noted in "The 101 Dumbest Moments in Business," January/February) last year found itself explaining that the Gutvik children's bunk bed is named "for a tiny town in Sweden"--after German shoppers noted that the name sounded a lot like a phrase that means "good f***." Ikea has yet to issue explanations for a workbench called Fartfull and a computer table dubbed Jerker.

Hits and Myths

Of course, as the global marketplace grows, so does the eagerness of many to believe that oafish big business regularly gets its comeuppance in foreign lands. Some classic gaffes have taken up permanent residence in the Web's echo chamber: The supposed howlers include the Chevy Nova's flop in Latin America because "no va" means "won't go"; Perdue Farms's translation of its slogan "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" into a Spanish phrase meaning "It takes a sexually aroused man to make a chicken affectionate"; and Coca-Cola's misbegotten attempt to render its name in Chinese characters, which came off as "Bite the Wax Tadpole."

While Coke didn't respond to our queries and Perdue would only say it didn't know one way or another, Chevrolet denied that its story was true. The Nova "did pretty well in the Hispanic market," GM spokeswoman Carolyn Normandin writes in an e-mail. And besides, in grammatical terms, "no va" isn't how a Spanish speaker would describe a dead car.

Whether the tales are spurious may be beside the point, given the eagerness of advertising execs to repeat them like scary bedtime stories. "They're fulfilling a need," Anholt says. "Language is in many respects such a silly little thing, but it has the power to bring marketing directors to their knees. That's where the terror lies."

Marketers Go Native

The first step in keeping the terror at bay is to hire a translation service. But even that's not foolproof: A native speaker of Japanese who's been working in America for 12 years as a translator won't be steeped in current teen slang in Tokyo.

That's one reason Boston-based consulting firm Sametz Blackstone Associates makes sure any translated materials are read by its linguistically mixed staff and by the company's foreign contacts. "You can be saved by the right secretary in another country reading it," says president Roger Sametz. One recent in-house vetting of a translator's work caught a missing tilde in a Spanish phrase--which might seem a minor matter of punctuation, until you consider that it meant the difference between "celebrating 35 years" and "celebrating 35 anuses."

At international branding consultancy Landor Associates in San Francisco, new names or slogans trigger native-speaker checks in eight languages. The research isn't exhaustive--typically it means interviewing three locals per language--but Anthony Shore, Landor's director of naming and writing, calls it "a red-flag disaster check." Even so, disasters can happen entirely in English, as with a Reebok marketing fiasco in 1997, when the company introduced a women's running shoe called the Incubus--a name that refers to a mythological creature infamous for ravishing women while they sleep. Says Shore, "A decent liberal arts education should have spotted that."

Linguistic Land Mines

Native-speaker checks are nice, but they can't red-flag the stealth disaster of a lame ad campaign. "They're just going to say, 'You're not offending anyone politically or sexually or religiously,'" says Douglas Sacks, senior vice president at direct-marketing outfit Infocore. "They're not going to say, 'That concept translates perfectly.' Because it won't. The concept will never translate perfectly into another culture. That's the dirty secret that marketers just don't want to admit."

Generally there are two problems, Sacks says: multinational ad agencies hamstrung by managers who don't want to surrender power to strangers overseas, and the "don't mess with the creative" mantra of marketers who think the magic of a campaign that works in one culture can be grafted onto another. The translation may be perfect, he says, but still have zero cultural resonance.

Sacks says he's encouraged to see international firms showing more willingness to delegate creative authority to local cultures. "Nobody wants to appear on the top 10 of cultural blunders," he says. "So there's hope. But mistakes will always be made."

"So what?" might be Mitsubishi's response. The company's four-wheel-drive Pajero has been a fixture in markets around the world for 30 years. Not in Spain, Latin America, or the United States, of course, where it's called the Montero. But in countries with fewer Spanish speakers, the SUV that identifies itself as a "wankermobile" is a steady seller. In France, for instance.

Mark Lasswell is a freelance writer based in New York.