Translation vs Localization: 7 Companies that Learnt the Difference the Hard Way

Translation vs Localization: 7 Companies that Learnt the Difference the Hard Way

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Translation vs Localization: is there even a difference?

Is it maybe just jargon or a “buzz” word used in the translation industry?

Well no, not at all! The difference between localization and translation is huge! Localization is not just translating your content word-for-word. It involves adapting your message in every single way to the culture you want to communicate with.
Would you be able to spot really good localization content? Of course not! When localization is done right, you won’t even notice it. With localization, you adapt every single detail of your message to match the local market, including everything from currency conversion, date format, imagery, and units, to the slang, tone of voice, and formality of the message you are communicating. The localization process differs for every single market and country. It doesn’t matter if the countries share the same language; the culture is different in every single one and that’s why your message should be tailored to them through localization.
We talked about localization… Now let’s discuss translation. What is translation all about? Well, translation is just a part of the localization process. The main and only goal of translation is to adapt your original message to the foreign language. It is basically a word-by-word translation of your content into a target language.

About those 7 companies that failed the localization test completely

We have laid out the key fundamentals of translation and localization. Now let's look at some of the companies that learned the importance of localization the hard way.

Picture of a Honda driver

Localization Mistake 1: Honda goes R

Years ago, the Japanese car company Honda introduced a new car model in Scandinavia, called “Fitta”. The name sounded hip and very European, and the car was anticipated to become a big hit. Unfortunately, the name ruined all their expectations and cost them a fortune in marketing material. In Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, the word “Fitta” is an older term for female genitals. The slogan “Small on the outside, big on the inside” did not really help matters either. As a result, they decided to rename the model to “Jazz”, which is now among their best-selling subcompact cars.

Localization Mistake 2: McDonald's Advertising the “Big Pimp”

With over 36,000 restaurants around the world, you’d expect McDonald’s would do its localization homework. Cheeky sidenote, maybe they should have read our Localization vs Translation blog. But still, you would expect such a giant corporation to make use of the best translators available (we recommend Taia next time). They should have been especially careful to avoid making localization mistakes like they did in France. The popular McDonald’s Big Mac was translated into “Gros Mec”, which literally means “big pimp”.
Big Mac menu
Pepsi can

Localization Mistake 3: Pepsi Playing with Ghosts

In the 60s and 70s, Pepsi decided to break into new markets. At that time, the slogan “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation” was a huge hit in the US, but in China and Germany, the story was a little different. For example, in Germany, the slogan was translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” (“Pepsi bringt deine Vorfahren wieder zum Leben“). Obviously, the message was not exactly what Pepsi would have wished to communicate to their new market.

Localization Mistake 4: Starbucks Makes a Straight-Up Error

“Latte” means milk in Italian. So the logical thing for Starbucks to do was to keep the widely used and universally accepted name for “coffee with milk”. They started to market it as a “caffe latte” all across Europe and English-speaking markets. This worked great in all European markets except Germany. “Latte” in German means pole and is a term in spoken language for a male erection. At first, the Germans didn’t know what to think about the name. However, they accepted it with a sense of humor and ordered a “café latte” with a smile.
Coffee from Starbucks
Fried chicken wings

Localization Mistake 5: KFC wants you to eat your fingers off

It seems as though Pepsi is not the only American brand that failed to do its homework when entering the Chinese market. When KFC attempted to launch its fast-food chain in China, it made a rookie mistake. When translating their famous “finger-lickin’ good” slogan word-for-word from English to Chinese, it became “Eat your fingers off!”. While they started off on the wrong foot (or hand), there was no major outcry… Luckily for them, everyone loves fried chicken.

Localization Mistake 6: Ford Pinto Falls Short in Brazil

By now you should see the importance of localization, and clearly from the examples, the importance of it when translating slogans. Unfortunately, Ford also fell into the trap when entering Brazil with their Ford Pinto model. Pinto in Brazilian Portuguese is a reference to a man with tiny genitalia. Definitely not the message Ford wanted to communicate to prospective customers, right? In an attempt to address the mistake, they renamed the Pinto as the Ford Corcel (“Stallion”).

Ford Mustang
picture of a baby

Localization Mistake 7: Pampers Confuses Japanese Parents

Sometimes the translation error is culturally specific. When Proctor & Gamble started selling their diapers in Japan, they did not even consider that Storks delivering babies may be culturally specific. Japanese parents were confused when they saw storks on the diaper packaging. Turns out, babies in Japan are said to be delivered on giant floating peaches. No wonder Japanese parents were so perplexed.

The Moral of the Story?

We know that these mistakes are pretty funny or shocking, whichever way you look at it. However, they cost the companies a lot of money and reputational damage.

Localization is a crucial step towards successfully entering a new market! This is especially so when you consider that more than 72% of all global consumers spend most of their time on websites in their own language. They say that the first impression is always the most important one!

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”

– Andrew Grant
Consumer browsing on the internet

Frequently asked questions

The primary task of translation is to transfer information from one language into another. When translating, the translator strictly follows the original text. In localization, however, translation is only part of the process. The whole text is adapted to the target market, both linguistically and culturally.
The biggest companies in the world (like Honda, McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Starbucks) swear by localization, although this hasn’t always been the case. They had to learn the hard way how important a localization strategy is.
Localization is especially important when you decide to enter a new market with your product(s). Localized content is proven to be better received by the target audience than translated content. More than anything, it helps you earn the trust of your customers and builds your company’s credibility.
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