Lost In Translation: 5 Botched Business Messages

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Tomato, tomahto? With corporate lexicon, seemingly small differences can cause a world of costly trouble, particularly when translation is required. Still, even the biggest businesses slip up surprisingly frequently with the messages they disseminate.

At best the embarrassing oversights are humorous and at worst deeply offensive. Whether accidentally hurling an affront on an inscribed bottle cap or obliviously asking women if they are lactating, these noteworthy and notorious lost-in-translation corporate blunders show it pays to keep skilled linguists or translators on staff.

1. Vitaminwater

The most recent example of widespread, faulty and improper translation within a marketing promotion caused some serious offense. Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada decided to play with Canada’s two official languages, French and English, printing one word in each language inside caps, with the idea consumers would combine the words they collected to create comical, nonsensical phrases. Some words, however, paired logically—and offensively—on their own. One customer opened her cap to find “You Retard.” (Retard means "delay" in French.) Other caps circulating raised eyebrows for including the word “douche,” intended to be interpreted as the French word for “shower.”

2. Got Milk?

Simple and eye-catching, the white moustache Got Milk? campaign is one of the most successful and widely recognized in U.S. advertising ever. When tailoring the campaign to target Latinos, though, the California Milk Processor Board directly translated over the same tagline. With the context or target changed, though, the message also mutated. Latinos understood the ads to be inappropriately asking “Are you lactating?” Employing slogans that spoke to family and tradition, for example, “Familia, Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk”), proved much more effective and appropriate.

3. Umbro

English sports apparel brand Umbro, beloved by football fans and players the world around, lost some its favor with a pair of running shoes it launched in 2002 called “Zyklon.” Official complaints from Jewish groups and denunciations of “appalling insensitivity” made the company realize it had given its shoes the name of an insecticide—Zyklon B—Nazis administered as a lethal gas in concentration camps.

4. Clairol

Hair care company Clairol, a division of Procter & Gamble, hit it big with its “Mist Stick” vapor curling iron. The company took its product to Germany and launched it there, name intact, only to later learn that “mist” in German is slang for “manure” or ”excrement"—far from what a company that bills itself as “Your Source for Hair Color” would desire.


Most international IKEA customers are used to being unable to pronounce the retailer’s Scandinavian product names. As the contemporary Swedish furniture retailer begins expanding more abroad, however, it has had to be more cautious when introducing some its bestselling goods as they are. In particular, the company has had to watch closely not to trip up in Thailand, where the “Redalen” bed sounds almost identical to the word that describes heavy-duty foreplay in Thai, and the “Jättebra” pot could be heard as a raunchy term for sex. The company smartly brought on a team of Thai speakers to consult and, when necessary, adjust product names.