Language Localization Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them
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Language Localization Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them

When venturing into new markets, the stakes are high and the pitfalls deep. Missteps in language localization can cost millions and tarnish your brand's image.
Maja Walczak
Maja Walczak
17 November 2023
Langbay - English-to-Polish Translation for Market Impact - Language Localization Faux Pas and How to Avoid Them

List of contents

What's the Difference Between Translation and Localization? Localizing for International Markets Without Understanding Local Culture Translation into Multiple Languages Without Localization Strategy Using Machine Translation in Your Language Localization Projects Lack of Industry Knowledge and Linguistic Chaos Don't Waste Your Hard Work and Invest in Localization Services

When expanding into new markets, companies often face the challenge of translating their content into multiple languages. This is a crucial communication element with their multilingual partners, clients, and target audience. However, translation is not just about word conversion—it's about conveying the cultural references, emotions, together with values of your brand. That's where language localization comes in. To achieve this, it's important to avoid common mistakes that often cost companies millions. Seeking professional help is always the best option. I explore localization faux pas that happened in the past and why they can be painful for your company.

What's the Difference Between Translation and Localization?

As most know, translation converts written or spoken text from a source to a target language. This translation is literal, faithfully reproducing the content from the source. However, it does not consider extralinguistic or cultural factors, which means that in some cases, translation can be incorrect but also incomprehensible or offensive to recipients of a particular culture.

Localization involves content translation that considers cultural factors, making the translation comprehensible to the audience. It involves adapting the translated content to the unique conditions not only of a particular country but also of a region. To perform proper localization, the translator must be well-versed in both the source and target languages, as well as the cultural specifics of the audience for whom the text is prepared. Therefore, it's important to know that the localization process is not just plain translation—it often requires much broader competencies and skills.

The goal is for the reader not to realize they are reading a translation but to feel as if the text was originally written just for them. Effective localization makes communication feel familiar and builds trust. A well-localized translation can enhance a brand's image in the local market and increase interest in its products or services. Whenever the translated text aims to achieve a specific goal—like making a sale or encouraging newsletter sign-ups—localization boosts the chances of success.

Now that you understand the difference in translation vs. localization services, let's explore the faux pas that big companies have made. 

Localizing for International Markets Without Understanding Local Culture

Companies must remember that localization isn't just about changing text from one language to another. It is crucial to understand and convey cultural context. Mariko Amekodommo, CEO of the marketing company Mariko Communications, points out in an interview with Business News Daily that not understanding the target market and local audience is one of the most common and costly mistakes entrepreneurs make when expanding their business.

This even applies to such basic aspects as the company name, product name, or advertising slogan, as even large corporations have learned. For Coca-Cola, transliterating the company name into Chinese characters, which sounded like "ke-kou-ke-la," was very problematic. Depending on the dialect, most people in China heard it as a "wax-stuffed mare," or it sounded like a request to "bite the wax tadpole."

A similar mistake happened here with Pepsi, Coca-Cola's main rival. Since the 1960s, their slogan promised that the drink would revive people. But when translated into Chinese, it sounded like Pepsi could bring dead ancestors back to life. This was especially awkward in China, as in Japan or Mexico, where honoring ancestors is very important, and many homes have small altars with pictures of deceased family members.

When KFC ventured into the Chinese market in the 1980s, their ad translation disastrously turned the iconic (and now no longer used) slogan "Finger lickin' good" into the horrifying "Eat your fingers off."

When General Motors launched the Chevy Nova in South America, they didn't realize "no va" translates to "it won't go." Once they understood this deterred sales, they renamed the car to the Caribe for Spanish-speaking markets.

Similarly, Ford encountered a problem in Brazil with the Pinto, which locals interpreted as slang for "tiny male genitals." Ford responded by replacing the nameplates with Corcel, which translates to "horse."

Parker Pen faced an issue in Mexico with its advertising slogan, which was intended to assure customers that their pens wouldn't leak and cause embarrassment. Unfortunately, due to a translation error, the ad claimed that the pens "won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant," misinterpreting the Spanish word "embarazar" for embarrassing instead of its actual meaning of impregnate.

Numerous other localization faux pas have occurred with major market players. So before taking your brand global, be wise and seek a translation and localization company that can save you money. Localization is not an expense; it's an investment in your success.

Translation into Multiple Languages Without Localization Strategy

Localization is more than just translation—it's a process of adapting your communication, product, or service to a specific market. Your localized content must be not only understandable but also appropriate and convincing for audiences from different parts of the world. Taking care of this aspect allows you to trigger positive associations. A company that sounds familiar and homely in the native language will be more established. It is also a company whose services and products customers are more likely to buy and use. Localization efforts are key to success on the global business stage.

Adapting the translation to the local market is especially important for languages of former colonial empires, such as English, French, or Spanish. When American Motors, an American automotive industry giant, released a new car named Matador, marketing experts apparently did not consider the differences in the meaning of this word depending on the region. In most Spanish-speaking countries, Matador was perceived by consumers as intended by the creators, namely as strength and decisiveness, like a man who bravely faces a bull in the arena.

In Mexico, however, the word "matador," like many other Spanish words, has a slightly different connotation. In this case, it means a killer, which is quite an unfortunate association for a company selling cars. High-quality localization tailored to a specific locale can help avoid such mistakes.

Using Machine Translation in Your Language Localization Projects

The internet is full of funny memes showing the effects of automatic translators. Many restaurants in tourist spots could really benefit from a professional's touch. Menus translated with a free English dictionary can lead to confusion rather than appetite, with descriptions like "various and confused pastas".

 When planning a foreign-language version of your product, it's worth seeking an experienced translator who will not only perform linguistically correct translation but also adjust the content to the culture of the country and the specifics of the market.

Most machine translations do not consider linguistic nuances. Automated online dictionaries are often blind to the subtlety of language, making their translations look unnatural. Popular programs also still have trouble understanding context and struggle with phraseology or slang, among other things. They also do not consider pronunciation, which is of great importance.

An example would be Braniff Airlines, which, wanting to advertise new leather seats in its planes, did not consider the connotation of its slogan in other languages. In the Spanish version, its slogan, "Fly in Leather!" encouraged potential passengers to fly naked. Literal translation without language localisation can seriously damage your reputation in a new market. 

Lack of Industry Knowledge and Linguistic Chaos

Translating specialist terminology requires not only knowledge of the language but also a deep understanding of the industry and the context in which the terms are used. Professional translators with degrees in English philology who specialize in a particular field can ensure that the translation is precise and appropriate to the industry context. Errors in specialist terminology can lead to misunderstandings with partners and costly mistakes in communication with customers.

The style and tone of your brand's communication are just as crucial as the actual content. A skilled language expert will fine-tune your marketing materials using a localization strategy tailored to your business, considering your industry, target audience, and the specific products and services you offer. A professional translator will grasp and maintain your company's unique style, essential for crafting a consistent brand image overseas.

Don't Waste Your Hard Work and Invest in Localization Services

By investing in a strong language localization strategy for your business, you boost your company's reliability and professionalism while clearly explaining what customers can expect from your brand, all shaped by its fundamental values. This careful attention helps your brand connect better across different cultural backgrounds, making it well-known, easy to remember, and relatable.

Including language localization is essential to making your marketing campaigns successful. This approach makes sure your business goals are met and that your marketing messages are tailored to fit various language nuances and language pairs. Properly adapting your content to different cultures not only meets the basic needs of localization but also boosts the overall effectiveness and reach of your campaigns. By doing this, your marketing efforts are not just seen. They truly resonate, reflecting the need to adapt to the various cultural contexts in global markets.

List of contents

What's the Difference Between Translation and Localization? Localizing for International Markets Without Understanding Local Culture Translation into Multiple Languages Without Localization Strategy Using Machine Translation in Your Language Localization Projects Lack of Industry Knowledge and Linguistic Chaos Don't Waste Your Hard Work and Invest in Localization Services


It’s important to avoid linguistic localization faux pas that can be costly for companies entering international markets. Even brands like KFC and Pepsi have suffered from poor localization—missteps that led to culturally insensitive or offensive translations. Investing in professional localization services is essential to enhance your brand image, effectively connect with your target audiences, and ensure global business success.

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