As a PR and marketing professional, I have recently been involved in a number of product naming projects. These are often time consuming affairs that involve a number of iterations and meetings. While these projects invariably start in English, it is crucial that short-listed names are run through a multi-lingual sanity check before any decision is made.
There are numerous examples of names and slogans not being checked thoroughly, and the short list below outlines five examples that provide a cautionary tale to any marketing team.
1. Ford Pinto
Ford’s failure to break into the Brazilian market with the Pinto was apparently nothing to do with the structural design flaw, which allowed its fuel tank to be punctured in a rear-end collision. Instead, it was the rather unfortunate usage in Brazilian slang of the word ‘pinto’ to mean “male genitals”.
2. Nokia Lumia
Reports abound that the name of Nokia’s iPhone challenger, the Lumia smartphone translates into “prostitute” in Spanish. However, this meaning appears to have gypsy roots, and is therefore not necessarily colloquially current.
3. Apple Siri
Apple’s intelligent personal assistant is more personal in some languages than others. In Japanese, Siri apparently translates to mean “buttocks”, in Georgian the colloquial translation is even worse – it means “male genitals”.
4. Microsoft Bing
Depending on how the word is pronounced, Microsoft’s Bing has several meanings in Mandarin, depending on the tone and characters associated with the word. Those meanings include “ice”, “soldier”, “pancake” but most disturbingly “sickness” or “to be ill”.
5. The Chevy Nova
Legend has it that Chevrolet failed to sell the Nova in Latin America because in Spanish, the words “no va” mean “it doesn’t go”. Unfortunately, the legend is mainly false – Chevy did reasonably well with the Nova in Latin America. “No va” does mean “it doesn’t go”, but “nova” as a single word retains it meaning of “new”.
While product naming is a big deal, and translating names even more so, just writing for translation throws up its own challenges, some of which are discussed here.