It’s often customers who get lost in translation

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It’s often customers who get lost in translation

FOR years, English-speaking visitors to Beijing could enjoy taking their chances with tempting dishes such as wood moustache meat or red burned lion head. But the city government recently decided to make dining out a little more boring – by producing an official book of translated dishes.

They’ve translated 3000 traditional food items into English to try to reduce confusion.

Not surprisingly, the move prompted plenty of discussions in the Chinese media, and translation and tourism websites. I’m sure many travellers will miss their four glad meat balls, hairy beans, or drunk crabs.

It was also a tough task for the translators. Food is traditionally a big part of Chinese culture, but many ingredients and dishes don’t have English equivalents.

Spotting amusing errors is a popular sport for many tourists. Lonely Planet even runs an annual contest asking people to take photos of translation mistakes. Previous winners include a dish called spicy grandma – spotted in Beijing of course – and a sign urging people to “Take luggage of foreigner”.

Many of them illustrate the risk of relying on computers, including the tempting Translate Service Error restaurant.

While tools such as Google Translate have improved dramatically, they’re still poor at recognising context.

This resulted in a German restaurant advertising its speciality as cancer salad. The owners obviously didn’t realise the word “krebs” has another meaning besides “crab”.

No doubt a taste of wild speculation can spice up a holiday for brave diners. But this type of mistake can cause serious problems for companies marketing overseas.

It’s all too easy for a catchy product name or witty marketing slogan to get lost in translation.

It’s a lesson Braniff International Airways learned the hard way, when it ran a radio and TV campaign advertising its new, all-leather seats. It assumed its tagline “Fly in leather” would also work in Latin America. They didn’t realise “en cueros” has another, slang meaning, and they were inadvertently telling passengers to “Fly naked”.

Another major pitfall can be choosing an inappropriate product name. Examples include the American baby food brand Gerber which means “to vomit” in French – not very appetising.

The Italian mineral water brand Traficante presumably didn’t realise this meant “drug dealer” when it launched in Spanish markets.

And, of course, some advertising is simply confusing.

When Parker Pen launched in Mexico, it attempted to advertise that its pens wouldn’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you. Unfortunately, it chose the wrong verb – embarazar – thus helpfully reassuring users the pens wouldn’t get them pregnant.

Sometimes, you don’t even need to use words to get the message wrong. Gerber also ran into problems in West Africa, when it launched its tinned baby milk with a picture of a cute, smiling baby on the packaging. They soon realised their blunder when customers were outraged. Since literacy rates are low in some areas, it’s customary to put a picture of the contents on the tin.

Clearly, choosing the right name can be big business. Many marketing companies offer a brand name checking service, ensuring words and slogans won’t cause offence or have negative connotations in another language.

• Christian Arno is managing director of translation company Lingo 24.