‘Fellatio’, ‘pancake’ and ‘waxed mare’: it might be hard to believe, but this is what some product names actually mean in other languages. Many businesses don’t even consider the fact that something as simple as the pronunciation of a product name in a foreign language may conjure up strange and unwanted associations that are sure to raise eyebrows. Introducing product names unchecked and unmodified in another country may therefore lead to extremely painful translation mix-ups. An article from the Wall Street Journal illustrates just how important transliteration may be when translating business texts and product names.

The article describes how IKEA in Thailand has its product names checked, and where necessary transliterated by a complete team of interpreters and translators. With good reason, apparently. Many businesses that spread their wings across their domestic borders make mistakes when it comes to product translations. For instance, IKEA learned that the name of one of its beds (Redalen) bears a striking resemblance to the Thai word for oral sex. The pronunciation of the plant pot ‘Jättekul’ also had sexual connotations in Thai. But IKEA is not by far the only company that had incorrectly translated its product names (or rather: not translated them at all).

In China, Bing, the name of Microsoft’s search engine, was changed to ‘bi ying’. Depending on the pronunciation, ‘Bing’ in Chinese refers to pancakes and diseases. And as early as 1927, it became clear that rendering ‘Coca Cola’ phonetically in Chinese characters led to words that refer to a waxed mare. Coca Cola subsequently changed the Chinese spelling of its brand, in order to prevent any unwanted connotations.

Therefore, although the problem concerning the translation of brand and product names has been recognised for decades, and even the article in the Wall Street Journal referred to here is already two years old, translating product names is still a poignant topic today. Where in the past these problems were limited to actual shops, or maybe printed catalogues, the translation issue has since spread to web shops and on websites. Businesses usually understand the importance of an online presence abroad, but hardly lend priority to translating and checking product names. Nevertheless, those very product names become visible to millions of potential customers, worldwide!

Product names are often an important aspect of Corporate Identity. For instance, without the Swedish product names, IKEA would undoubtedly lose some of its Swedish appeal. And a company such as McDonald’s would be hard-pressed without names such as McFlurry and Chicken McNuggets. However, in order to prevent any potential misunderstandings, it is essential that considering the product names is a factor in the translation of a website, web shop or paper catalogue.

Whether or not product names evoke any strange connotations is best left to the judgement of native speakers with thorough knowledge of the target language. They are aware of the cultural values and norms in a specific country or region and know the latest in linguistic developments and vernacular. They will be able to determine whether a product name may be a little too similar to things that you would not want your business to be associated with. So, IKEA has already taken on a team of native speakers in order to prevent misunderstandings. Textcase also works with qualified translators that live in the country where the language they translate into is spoken. And just like the team at IKEA in Thailand, they will not only translate your website, web shop and marketing text correctly into the language you require, but they will also make sure that the texts and product names do not lead to unwelcome associations.

  1. Textcase considers the potential connotations of product names in a foreign language on the basis of four elements:
  2. Is the product name easy to pronounce in the foreign language?Do (parts of) product names have any specific meanings in the foreign language? If so, what are these?
  3. What positive connotations does the product name have in the foreign language?
  4. What negative connotations does the product name have in the foreign language (e.g. slang, dialect, objects, names of celebrities, brand names)?

Textcase uses the answers to these questions to determine – in corroboration with qualified native speakers and the client – whether transliteration of product names is required. If you would like to learn more about our translation practices concerning product and brand names, get in touch with us.


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