As anyone who has faced off against the despicable Duolingo owl on the daily knows, learning another language can be tricky. It would at least be a little easier if it was simply a situation of learning the right words and swapping them out to create an Osaka-ready sentence. Instead, there are so, so many possible ways to shit the bed when it comes to moving from one language to another. You’d think that this knowledge would cause huge, global companies to, at the very least, shoot proposed translations to a handful of citizens in the country of question as a means of double-checking. But over and over again, they do not.
In particular, here are five massive translation missteps made while trying to expand food empires…
McDonald’s Launches the Big Pimp
It turns out you can run into trouble even when translating something that is, essentially, nonsense. If you’re McDonald’s, and you’re looking to expand your global power, it’s only natural that you would do so on the heels of your greatest warrior: the Big Mac. Now, as far as the word “big” goes, no problem. That’s something most languages are going to have worked out at some point in their development.
What’s a little tougher is translating Mac, which is basically a repurposed nickname. A shortening of a surname which, by definition, doesn’t have a direct translation. The easy path would be to leave the name as is, and have the French word for “Big Mac” be “Big Mac” but in a French accent. Instead, they tried switching it to “Gros Mec.” Gros, because, well, that’s “big” in French. Mec is where they made the mistake. While, I assume, going for something phonetic, but Frenchier, they accidentally stumbled upon the word for “pimp.” Meaning their most famous sandwich was now known as the “Big Pimp.”
KFC: Finger-Eating Good
Diners across the globe agree: It’s not cool to eat human meat. A preference that I think no one is particularly trying to upset. Even if, from a purely logical view, we are indeed nothing but red meat packed onto a series of bones and operated by electric crackles, we try not to think about that fact. Take it from me: If you think about it too much that way, you end up with a Zoloft prescription.
Chickens, on the other hand, are not tugging any heartstrings. Even in the tier list of animals we feel bad about eating, they’re hurt by the fact that they’re sharp all over and not particularly personable. So when launching in China, KFC had a pretty clear path to success: Tell everyone you are serving delicious chicken, and don’t make people think about cannibalism. A path they unfortunately, failed to stay on thanks to a mistranslation of their famous slogan, “Finger-lickin good.” The version they plastered up around China instead said, “Eat your fingers off.” More of the command of a demon occupying your body than a fast-food chicken-slinger.
Pepsi Promises Necromancy
Something fairly important in advertising should you want to avoid lawsuits is that what you promise has at least a 0.00001 percent chance of being possible thanks to your product. Because of that, you generally don’t want to advertise effects that are impossible without the assistance of not only magic, but powerful, dark incantations. Was that Pepsi’s intent when advertising in Japan? I doubt it, but that’s the claim they inadvertently made all the same.
They were attempting to launch a new campaign centering around their popular slogan “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.” Inhibiting the worldwide effectiveness of that slogan was a translation error that took it in an entirely different, necromantic direction. The message they ended up sending out in China (though there are claims of other countries as well) was this: “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From the Dead.”
To be fair though, that might not hurt sales if you’re suddenly sending everyone to the local cemetery with a two-liter bottle and hopes of the world’s weirdest family reunion.
Sometimes you don’t need to go far to beef it big-time in translation terms. Coca-Cola found this out the hard way when they did nothing more than try to phonetically translate their name for the Chinese market, giving them the name “Ke-Kou-Ke-La.” On a purely auditory level, it seems like a perfectly reasonable choice. Unfortunately, how languages work is that combinations of sounds and syllables have meanings, some much older than soda.
Instead of sounding out a soft drink, they found that they’d constructed a brand new, unsettling phrase. In one dialect, it meant “bite the wax tadpole.” Strange, and not inspiring thoughts of refreshment, but maybe not fully appetite-ruining. The translation in another dialect, though, “female horse stuffed with wax,” well, that sounds like something out of NBC’s Hannibal, not a convenience store shelf. They’d regroup and change it to “ko-kou-ko-le” which means “happiness in the mouth.”
You’re telling me you were that close the whole time to a literally perfect opportunity and instead you were like, “Wax-filled horse, nice”?
Got (Breast) Milk?
So maybe not fast food, but a worldwide staple is milk. Now, why there’s really a need to advertise milk is above my head, given that I think most people are aware of it. But hey, it’s not like that money could be spent on anything better! Whatever it was trying to accomplish, “Got milk?” is one of the most famous ad campaigns in recent history. When they ported it to Spanish, it seemed simple enough, a translation even my high-school Spanish could handle. Tienes: do you have. Leche: milk. Clearly, the answer here is Tienes leche?
If you said yes, don’t worry, so did they. Unfortunately, those two words in tandem apparently transform each other like a linguistic Voltron into a much more personal inquiry: “Are you lactating?” And you thought “are you pregnant” was a rude thing to ask someone.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.