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Ridiculous translation blunders that cost millions of dollars (and why you should learn a language for better business)

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?


Embarrassing mistakes are really not that big a deal when you make them with your friends. Making mistakes is an art that individual language learners need to embrace if they are truly to learn a language well.

If you conjugate a verb wrong when ordering your first coffee abroad, the world does not come to an end.

But something that continues to boggle my mind, is how businesses with a budget of millions or billions of dollars get sloppy with second languages, when they are not being heard/read by a single person but by an entire country that they advertise to.

Here are some real-world examples that astonish me to this day:

Embarrassing and costly translation mistakes made by major businesses

Pepsi’s Chinese Blunder
In the 1960’s, Pepsi took its “Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation” slogan to China, which was not well very well received. The reason? In Chinese, this translates to “Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead.”

Clairol and Canadian Mist’s German Blunder
Canadian Mist, a brand of whiskey, failed in German markets because “Mist” in German means “manure.”

The same happened to Clairol when it attempted to sell a curling iron called the “Mist stick” to German markets. Who wants to put a shit stick into their hair?

Coors Spanish Blunder
A Coors slogan, “Turn it loose,” was translated into Spanish for its overseas campaign, resulting in the slogan: “Suffer from Diarrhea.” The beer did not sell well…obviously.

KFC’s and Coca Cola’s Chinese Blunders
In the US, KFC’s slogan is “Finger lickin’ good.” The company stuck with this when moving its campaign into China, where unfortunately this phrase translates to “We’ll eat your fingers off.”

And when Coke first attempted to translate its brand name phonetically into Chinese, its first attempts were botched as well, sounding to native speakers like “bite the wax tadpole” and “female horse stuffed with wax.”

Jolly Green Giant’s Arabic Blunder
The familiar Jolly Green Giant, when translated into Arabic, came across initially as “Intimidating Green Monster!”

Schweppes Italian Blunder
The company Schweppes introduced its “tonic water” into the Italian market without overseeing its Italian translation: Schweppes Toilet Water…

General Electric’s French Blunder
And finally, General Electric once attempted to release its new partnership brand in Europe under the name GPT. This caused a bit of scandal, because in French, GPT is pronounced “J'ai pété”, which means, “I farted.” Money was lost and reputations were damaged.

These mistakes—hilarious in retrospect, but embarrassing and costly for the companies who made them– may seem silly or trivial, but can add up to serious consequences. Situations like this that stem from language or cultural misunderstandings cost businesses (in the US alone!) around $2 million a year.

Here’s something even more amazing than that: Fixing these blunders does not require a mastery level in any of the languages.

In each of these cases, even an intermediate level speaker in the language could have prevented these mistakes from happening, saved these companies money, time, and resources, and allowed them to build relationships with these new markets, rather than alienating them.

I’ve always advocated for language learning in terms of the cultural benefits that being multilingual offers. It opens up your worldview, and connects you to new people. And this absolutely does not begin and end only in our personal lives.

Learning a new language will make you more employable

If you're running or starting your own business, being multilingual will make you a hell of a better employer (or entrepreneur, or business strategist) as well.

And this is because businesses are about people. Every company that has ever existed, anywhere, has had at its very core a very simple common ground: people. The goal of any business is in helping people, assisting them in getting the things they want, providing them with something that they need… or sometimes trying to convince them to buy something they may not need.

My point is that the business world is about communication. It’s about forming connections and relationships with people, first and foremost.

The same is true of languages.

I’ll always maintain that one of the most important “keys” to learning a new language is to have a passion for developing your skills in that language and for communicating with that language’s people. But let me point out something that may or may not be obvious: Work and passion are not mutually exclusive!

If your job or your business is your passion, then there are huge opportunities–and incentives–for including a language learning project as part of your “work” and as part of your business strategy.

Becoming fluent in a new language, especially in the language that your customers, clients and partners abroad speak, allows you to build more relationships, and therefore allows not only for your business to grow, but to give you a greater understanding of the needs, wants and cultural perspectives of the people whose lives you’d like your business to touch so that you can serve them better.

Some of these relationships may already exist in the form of partnerships you may have right now with a foreign country abroad or with a specific community that already uses your product or service. Or they may be sitting there, untouched and untapped, waiting for you to start building a relationship with them.

Big businesses also know that languages are important

While the above examples are unfortunate cases where businesses fail, there are cases when an international mindset is apparent.

Big names like Facebook and Twitter, whose business platforms are largely excluded from China for cultural reasons, have responded to this disconnect by making an increased effort to understand Chinese culture. Mark Zuckerburg, whose business is all about connecting people, said “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out a billion people?”

So if you have to learn a new language for your job, or if you think that knowing multiple languages will “help your business” in some vague way—I’d like you to think not just about the job and not just about the business but about the people on the other side who you can connect yourself to by building this kind of bridge.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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