Lost in Translation: are mistakes really funny?

14th Sep 2015

We are sure that sometimes you have come across blunders related to languages, especially when dealing with translation of books, films and advertising campaigns. Translation pitfalls are more common than you would imagine. It feels like Bob Harris, the protagonist of “Lost in Translation” (the 2003 comedy-drama film, ed), and to not understand the differences in meaning and the different expressions of the languages, often related to cultural matters. This is funny and embarrassing at the same time and is the main cause of misunderstanding, lack of trust and also the decline in the image of a company. In fact, marketing blunders are examples of how even the smallest translation error can have a great effect on a brand´s success.


The cultural background is crucial in this field and if sometimes we are disappointed with a translation of the title of a book or a film, we have simply to accept that the same title does not work in Europe as in America or in Asia as in Brazil. On the other hand the creativity of translators should have limits. What translators do is a sort of transposing the meaning of the source title in title that suits the cultural exigencies of the target country and this is not a mistake, but a readjustment. However, cultural insensitivity in marketing translations could lead to mistakes and cultural issues. Here you have a few examples of mistakes and their consequences…

·         PEPSI: a miraculous drink  in China

The 1960’s Pepsi advertising campaign in China was a complete failure because of a translation mistake: the original slogan “Come alive with Pepsi” was improperly translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestor back from the grave”. Obviously this absurd promise caused a loss of credibility and reliability of the brand in China. 

·         BIBLE: the inexistence of Moses’ horns

The most translated book could not be perfect and surely some mistakes appear especially in the translation of the Old Testament to Latin, the version which became the basis of the myriad of following translations. In fact, according to some hypothesis, the horns of Moses go back to Saint Jerome’s “translation error” in the Latin Vulgate. In the moment when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance” but the Hebrew word was misunderstood by Saint Jerome that translated with “horned”. This mistake was contained in the following translations and because of this error Moses has been represented in sculptures and painting with horns.

·         WILLIE RAMIREZ’S CASE: the importance of a single word

Florida, 1980: 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was hospitalized in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. A bilingual staff member provided the interpretation service translating “intoxicado” as “intoxicated”. A professional interpreter would have known that "intoxicado" is closer to "poisoned" and doesn't carry the same meaning of drug or alcohol use that "intoxicated" does. Furthermore, cultural differences complicated the language issue. Willie was suffering an intracerebral haemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he was experiencing an intentional drug overdose because of the wrong translation. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic and received malpractice settlement of $71 million.


        -       JAPAN: double celebrating of Valentine’s day

Here we have an example of how a translation mistake made a company more successful. In Japan in the 50s chocolate companies began to promote Valentine’s Day with the aim to make people consume more chocolate, but, due to a mistranslation, people were given the idea that women had to give chocolate to men on that day. And… they did not abandon this custom! In fact, on February 14 women are still showing their love to the beloved ones with chocolate hearts and pralines, while on March 14 men are returning the favour. A double victory for the chocolate companies.

       -        EXPO: how a little mistake led to a big disease

A very embarrassing event occurred last May at Expo in Milan. Out of the tube station in Rho Fiera there were some posters on which it was written: “But your ticket” instead of “Buy your ticket.” The mistake, which thanks to the numerous pictures on the Internet became viral, was soon corrected, and Expo coordinators pointed out that it was not their fault, but of the fair of building, as they wrote the poster. Still, a gaffe signed Expo.

         -      KFC: cannibalistic slogan in China

When the international fast food chain promoted the company in China, they had to face a failure and the reason behind it stands in the translation of their slogan. In fact, their well-known motto “Finger lickin’ good” was translated as “Eat your fingers off”. As you can imagine, this mistake caused considerable losses for the fast food chain. However, the fast food chain soon became aware of the mistake, changed the slogan and today KFC’s business in China is more and more prosperous.

         -      MC DONALD’S: “Big guys” for everyone!

A very funny event occurred in France, when McDonald’s “Big Mac” was introduced. The name of the famous burger was translated as “Gros Mec”, which in French means “Big guy” or “Big pimp”.

In this article we illustrated you just some of the most famous blunders that big brands have made.  Translation mistakes can be prevented by avoiding literal translation, checking pronunciation in other languages and researching the country´s cultural values, but it is not easy to keep a constant, solid, coherent brand message in different countries. That’s why translation is important and it must not be taken for granted, as it is a special skill that needs to be developed, otherwise, as we saw, it can lead to embarrassing mistakes.. 


Alessio Foderi and Asja Gregori, Interns at Pearl Linguistics

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