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How to Translate Company Slogans without Landing on a “Top 10 Worst” List

We’ve all had a good laugh reading translations gone disastrously wrong. Warning signs, disclaimers, and company slogans seem to be particularly susceptible to hilarious results. Because they often involve a play on words or a reference to culture-specific concepts, corporate catchphrases become especially treacherous for translators. To assist those who navigate this tricky terrain, ALTA offers these 5 tips for rendering precise slogan translations while retaining the style and character of the original. As with anything, practice makes perfect, so try your hand at a few of the sample exercises at the bottom of this article before signing off on the next big project.

1. Forget about literal translation
While this bit of advice applies to most texts, avoiding the word-for-word approach is key when translating any sort of slogan or motto.

Sample slogan: “Got Milk?” (American Dairy Association)
Translation blunder: “Are you lactating?” (Spanish-language ads run in 2001)
What went wrong? When asked in Spanish, this well-meaning and wildly popular phrase implies readiness to breast-feed rather than eagerness to drink dairy.
How was it fixed? A new campaign was quickly launched, this time with the catchphrase “Familia, Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk”). Not surprisingly, consumers responded more favorably to the call for domestic bliss than to impertinent inquiry.

2. Recognize the underlying premise
The cardinal rule of translation has always been “you can’t translate what you don’t understand.” Nowhere is this mantra more important than in the world of short, pithy sayings that are meant to pack a big punch. Before translating a single word, make sure to grasp the aim, angle, and approach of the original slogan, thus saving yourself from awkward consequences down the road.

Sample slogan: “Turn it loose!” (Coors Light)
Translation blunder: “You will get diarrhea!” (Ad campaign in Spain)
What went wrong? Many things can get “turned loose”, not all of which are desirable. Instead of honing in on the idea of unwinding and having fun, the marketing team responsible for this ad translated words rather than meaning – a surefire recipe for amusing inaccuracies.

3. Pay attention to phonetics
For translation professionals who spend hours poring over written texts, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the verbal component of language plays a large role in how we absorb information. That’s why it’s vital to make sure that harmless sounds in the source language do not carry unintended meanings in the target language.

Sample slogan: “Coca-Cola” (Coca-Cola Corporation)
Translation blunder: “Bite the wax tadpole” (Mandarin translation)
What went wrong? “Ke-Kou-Ke-La” is how the company chose to represent itself phonetically on the Chinese market. What seemed like a decent transliteration was actually an absurd string of words, each with individual meanings.
How was it fixed? With just a little bit of tweaking, Coca-Cola was able to find the close equivalent of “Ko-Kou-Ko-Le”, which has the more appropriate sense of “happiness in the mouth.”

4. Mind your slang
It’s unlikely that the VP of Marketing at a major corporation stays current on French swear words, Mexican innuendoes, or Mandarin colloquialisms. And yet, many brands have released products that don’t quite mean what we think they mean in the target language.

Sample slogan: “Ford Pinto” (Ford)
What went wrong? “When the Ford Pinto entered the Brazilian market, it was met with uproarious laughter. It turns out that the car model shares its name with the Brazilian Portuguese slang term for “tiny male genitals.”
How was it fixed? Ford spun 180 degrees from the less-than-inspiring name, replacing it with “Corcel”, meaning “horse”.

5. Get a second opinion… and then a third one!
Even the most seasoned translators are not immune to blunders, typos, and gaps in their knowledge. For every glaring and unforgivable translation error that’s published, there are scores of target-language proofreaders that could have easily helped the company avoid embarrassment. Don’t forget to take that crucial last step that can save time, money, and your reputation.

Sample slogan: “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” (Purdue)
Translation blunder: “It takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate.” (Ads run in Mexico)
What went wrong? A billboard featuring these lines next to an image of the proud owner and
his fowl seemed to indicate some questionable intentions in the Spanish

Now that you’re more familiar with the do’s and don’ts of slogan translation, see how well you can do with these iconic phrases. Feel free to post in your language of choice in the comments section below!

American Express: “Don’t leave home without it.”

Bic lighters: “Flick my Bic.”

Bounty: “The quilted quicker picker-upper.”

Burger King: “Have it your way.”

Cadillac: “Break through.”

Coca-Cola: “The pause that refreshes.”

Fox News: “Fair and balanced.”

Kellog’s Frosted Flakes: “They’re g-r-r-r-eat!”

Nike: “Just do it.”

Taco Bell: “Think outside the bun.”

VISA: “It’s everywhere you want to be.”

More About ALTA Language Services

ALTA has more than 30 years of experience providing localization, linguistic name evaluation, and corporate translation services. We’re recognized leaders in the translation industry, offering both language and cultural solutions to businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Contact us today!

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