Monday, April 20, 2009

International Marketing - Pitfalls of Translation

In the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students everything had to be translated into both English and French and this led to some interesting results. As a former President, I have seen some interesting mistranslations including the occasional and unfortunate mistranslation such as a dinner menu of chicken breast translated as chicken boob.

My favourite is the mistranslation of semi-formal as "demi-habillé" (or half dressed). As a result, the Quebecois, in a good natured attempt to remind English speaking Canadians of the importance of translation, collectively came to the semi-formal event literally half dressed in a shirt or blouse and boxer shorts (other more "creative" Quebecer's choose which half to dress up). Now at all semi-formal events, they come continue to come "demi-habillé". The proper translation for semi-formal is "tenue de ville".

While these mistranslations were embarrassing, we weren't alone in a few other disastrous mistranslations of advertising slogans by public entities.

With the recent 2008 Olympic games in China, I was fairly happy with some of the Mandarin translations of foreign products including:
  • Coca Cola translated in Chinese to "Delicious Happiness".
  • BMW is translated in Mandarin as Bao Ma (literally "valuable horse"). It also doesn't hurt that "Bao Ma" is a useful phonetic equivalent of the slang "Beamer".
I understand that speaking and reading any dialect of Chinese can be difficult (let alone translation). Words that sound alike usually take on the context and implicit meaning of the other. "Ma" itself can mean horse, mother or be used a grammatical inflexion indicating a question (be careful as to which meaning you want to imply).

This is also the case with certain lucky numbers and images in Chinese culture. For instance, the word for the number 4 sounds an awful lot like death and is therefore associated with bad luck. The number 8 is prosperity associated with fortune. The traditional Chinese new year greeting "Gong hei fat choi" contains the word "fat" sounding like 8. Without an intimate knowledge of the language and context, Babelfish style translations (replacing words with literal translations and with a rudimentary understanding of grammar) are sure to run awry.


Tammy said...

even having a NOTORIZED translation done doesn't necessarily mean it will be correct. I suppose the best way is to really understand the culture and the little idioms associated with any langugage in order to get it right.

i never understood why the Chinese has to translate BMW? I mean... its just three letters?? and its not like they don't know what B - M - and W sound like....

although, delicious happiness, or pocari sweat... really do sound like refreshing drinks.

Joshua Wong said...

I don't know if I'd call Pocari sweat "enticing"... That was actually one of my first English translation internet meme's my friend introduced me to. ;)

And that understanding the culture would be the key to getting it right, but you really need a local to get the translations correct.

There's always little things people do which give away their non-native background (or geographic preference): "Le weekend" (Quebec) versus "fin de semaine" (France) etc.