When translation goes wrong, it really goes wrong

translation screen

Here at Copywriter UK we’ve handled lots of international copywriting projects, so we understand just how important it is for businesses to invest in good translation – especially if you want to avoid telling overseas customers to bite the wax tadpole.

A meaningful element of speech within your ear. Translation has a price that is expensive to you.

Terrible headline, isn’t it? But that’s how a bad translator may have rewritten the original headline below:

A word in your ear. Translation can cost you dear.

The translation has lost the original’s colloquial, friendly touch. It’s lost its rhyme. It’s positive instead of being a potential. It’s not great English and doesn’t read well. Yet it’s pretty close to the original, isn’t it?

Translations are a great opportunity

Talking to people in their language can open up new markets for you. It can make a huge difference to people’s perceptions of your business to talk to someone in their tongue. Over 50% of the top 10 million websites are in English, 5.6% Japanese, 5.5% German, 4.1% French and 2% Chinese. This shows that language versions of sites have less competition on the Internet, and indicates that non-English speaking people have a limited resource of information in their own language. That’s an opportunity for businesses.

But with an opportunity, there can be a downside to some types of translation. A translation can be:

  • Naive: using language that’s too basic for the subject matter. This is very relevant if you operate in a specific marketplace where technical terms are an issue.
  • Wrong: using incorrect grammar, spelling and comprehension. This will either make your business sound sloppy and illiterate, or potentially could confuse customers about your services.
  • Off brief: your money spent on snappy headlines and compelling mission statements could be wasted on a poor translation that doesn’t consider the marketing aspects of what you’re trying to say.

The problem is, if you’re not a linguist yourself, you may not know how poor your translation has been. That could mean losing business rather than gaining it.

When translation goes bad

Even the biggest brands have suffered at the hands of translation. For example, in China Coca-Cola was translated as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” depending on the dialect. They eventually found the right Chinese characters that are phonetically close to the brand – “ko-kou-ko-le” – which means ‘happiness in the mouth”. Meanwhile, the Chinese KFC slogan “finger licking good” came out as “eat your fingers off”.

In Taiwan, the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from dead”. A Brazilian translation of Pinto, a Ford car, was slang for “tiny male genitals”. And in Italy a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.

Ensure copywriters tackle your translations – not just translators

It’s vital that, when you’ve spent money with your copywriting agency or advertising agency creating strong messages, that they’re translated by linguistic copywriters.

For example, suppose you were Nike and wish to translate the phrase ‘Just do it’ into French. There are numerous ways of saying it – many of which will be impactless literal translations. Even with a basic knowledge of French you could probably make a suggestion yourself. However, a good French copywriter will be able to suggest translations that have the impact and meaning of the original. Be warned. Seize the opportunity, but don’t ‘take hold forcibly of a favourable occasion’.


If you are overseas and in need of a UK copywriter, give the team a call and we will happily discuss your copywriting needs.

Video scripting: Xylem case study

Xylem video screenshot

Here at Copywriter UK we get to work on a range of exciting projects from across the globe, and in different formats. As copywriters we can write something for web, print or even scripting for video, which is what we did for one client based in Italy.

Xylem is a market-leading provider of water technology solutions, operating in more than 150 countries around the world. We have worked with them for several years, and they asked us to script a series of short videos used to promote the Xylem Learning Center. It’s a new resource to help professionals such as installers and retailers learn about pump technology, and using Xylem products.

We wrote the scripts in clear, American English due to the international nature of the audience. The professionals who voiced the scripts came from different nationalities, and they were addressing a global audience – cue the need for a simple, universal script that could be understood easily by everyone. A good example of this is the general introduction video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/tcPpWYVpDqk

We scripted and captioned 14 videos in total, which were then uploaded to YouTube and embedded on the company’s website. The videos have generated thousands of views in total, and are still heavily used by Xylem to promote the learning center. You can view all of the videos on Xylem’s YouTube page here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjFHfFbPZ7ds4p2d-El_anQ/videos

If you need a video scripting, call Steve at Copywriter UK on +44 (0) 845 2606 255 to see how we could help.