Idioms Faux Pas: Mega Mistakes in Translation

Idioms Faux Pas: Mega Mistakes in Translation

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Idioms, the colourful expressions that add depth and richness to language, pose unique challenges in translation projects. These linguistic gems capture remarkable moments when coincidence orchestrates the most unexpected encounters and experiences.

But, have you wondered how easy -even for the largest global brands and international corporations- it is to make mega-mistakes in translation?

The Value of Idioms in Language

Whether discovering shared roots in a conversation or bumping into an old friend halfway across the world, we often marvel and common English idioms like “It’s a small world.”

Beyond its literal meaning, this phrase has evolved to symbolize how technology has bridged distances, bringing us closer together.

In this interconnected global landscape, where communication spans continents and international trade thrives, we truly inhabit a “small world.”

However, even in this era of seamless global connectivity, translation blunders can still occur -especially when involves idioms- even by the largest and most influential multinational corporations.

Let’s explore some memorable mishaps in the commercial realm, embarrassing translation errors that occurred due to an inaccurate translation and localisation of idioms:

Electrolux Translation Mistake from Swedish

Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” (check the TV ad!)

When the Swedish vacuum cleaner manufacturer decided to launch its products in the US, technically, there was nothing wrong with their slogan, but they did not take into account the American idioms.

“Suck” does mean to remove the air from a confined space, to create a vacuum that will draw in dust and fluff, and of course their intention was to suggest that their products performed this action better than the market’s alternatives.

But if only their researchers had looked into their American English translation from Swedish a little further, they’d have seen that ‘to suck’ to Americans means to be rubbish (rather than to clean it up).

Pepsi Slogan Translation Mishap

‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’. (Look at the ad here)

Urban myth, with an element of truth, has it that when Pepsi used this slogan in the 1960s it caused quite a spooky stir in China, or at least it suggested that the sugary drink might cause a stir among the undead.

The literal translation of this phrase implied that Pepsi had the power to bring dead ancestors back to life, a claim that apparently caused offence and confusion in equal measure.

So, be careful with the idioms when translating to Chinese!

Coca-Cola Translation in Chinese

As a possible consequence of the previous translation error, Pepsi -the global drinks giant- has never quite beaten its eternal rival, Coca-Cola, to the number one spot in that part of the world.

Although, it is interesting to note that in some Chinese dialects, the phonetic pronunciation of Coca-Cola, ‘Ke-kou-Ke-la’, can be understood as ‘bite the wax tadpole’.

Clearly, wax models of baby frogs are more palatable than the idea of resurrection.


“‘Assume nothing!’ was once HSBC’s tagline, created to emphasise their commitment to providing localised services and understanding diverse cultures. Their advertising revolved around this philosophy, emphasizing that they don’t make assumptions about individuals’ circumstances.

The idea of ‘assuming nothing’ appeared brilliant to the marketing experts who introduced it in 2009 as a concise slogan representing the global banking giant’s worldwide philosophy. However, little did they anticipate the potential challenges that could arise from a seemingly foolproof two-word slogan.”

However, they soon encountered a major problem – they had made a significant assumption!

No one had taken the initiative to check how the translation would be perceived in various countries, particularly in the local regions that HSBC specifically targeted.

In numerous major and minor languages, the phrase was translated as ‘do nothing,’ which certainly does not convey a favourable message from a forward-thinking and progressive local bank.

Hire Professional Audio and Video Translation

In conclusion, exercising great caution when translating messages into different languages is crucial to reach global audiences. It is essential to consider the idioms and nuances of each language.

That’s why it is worth entrusting the task of your audiovisual content localisation to the experts because it involves much more than a literal translation. We are here to assist you!

Remember, if you’d like to discuss your next project, then give us a call or email projects@golocalise.com

At GoLocalise our expertise ensures that you can localise your content to over 300 languages, whether you need subtitles, voice over or translation, with our industry-renowned services.

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