Lost In Translation. Funny True Miscommunication

Tony Hughes

Lost In Translation. Funny True Miscommunication

The world is wired for miscommunication and it's especially problematic when we cross cultures or use shorthand social media and e-mail to communicate. But this is not a new problem created by digital communication. Every time we met someone and every time we talk or write, we must ensure we communicate positive intent to build trust and understanding.

Effective communication and language translation involves far more than converting words and phrases from one language to another. We must convey intent. In the early 1980s, computer programmers were developing some innovative translation software but came up with some peculiar results:

  • From English to Russian, back to English: 'Out of sight, out of mind' ended up: 'Invisible idiot'.
  • From English to Japanese, back to English: 'To be or not to be, that is the question' (from Hamlet) ended up: 'It is, it is not, what is it?'

In the 1990s, international marketers had some monumental cross-cultural miscommunication blunders concerning brand names and slogans:

  • Swedish vacuum-cleaner manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American advertising campaign: 'Nothing sucks like an Electrolux'.
  • Australian brewer, Castlemaine launched it's XXXX ('four-ex') beer in the USA using their trademarked jingle 'I can feel a four-ex coming on' which had proved so successful in the Australian market. Unfortunately the company was unaware that XXXX was the brand name of a successful American condom manufacturer!
  • The name Coca-Cola in China was first rendered as Ke-kou-ke-la. Unfortunately, the Coke company did not discover, until after thousands of signs had been printed, that the phrase means: 'Bite the wax tadpole'. Coke then researched 40,000 Chinese characters and found a close phonetic equivalent, 'ko-kou-ko-le,' which can be loosely translated as: 'Happiness in the mouth'.
  • Also in Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan: 'Finger-lickin' good' came out as: 'Eat your fingers off'.
  • In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan: 'Come alive with the Pepsi Generation' came out as: 'Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead'.
  • Ford had a similar problem in Brazil when the Pinto flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for 'tiny male genitals'. Ford pried all the nameplates off and substituted Corcel, which means horse.
  • When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its advertisements were supposed to say: 'It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you'. However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word 'embarazar' meant embarrass. Instead the advertisement said: 'It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant'.
  • In Italy, Schweppes Tonic Water was wrongly translated into Schweppes Toilet Water.
  • An American t-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope's visit. Instead of the desired: 'I Saw the Pope' in Spanish, the shirts proclaimed: 'I Saw the Potato'.
  • And the funniest; American chicken-man Frank Perdue's slogan: 'It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken', got terribly mangled in another Spanish translation. A photo of Perdue with one of his birds appeared on billboards all over Mexico with a caption saying: 'It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused'.

I swear this is true. I was once in Asia and had a meal in a restaurant with a client. At the end of dinner I paid the bill and as we left I thanked the waitress who had served us. She responded with broken English: "We like to pleasure you." We both burst into laughter as we got outside.

If you want to bridge any communication gap and build rapport, here are my ten tips.

  1. Have a firm, warm and friendly handshake. Sounds obvious but one-third of people I meet have a crap handshake. The most common problem is breaking eye-contact while still shaking my hand. The second-biggest problem is either limp-fish or gorilla grip - both are bad. Be aware that for some Muslim women, they cannot have physical contact with a man in public who is not their husband.
  2. Positive eye contact, especially for men who should keep their eyes above the shoulders. But don't drill a hole through the other person's skull with your laser-like intimidating glare. The only time you should break eye contact is to take notes. Note that in some cultures in Asia, and also for traditional Aboriginal people in Australia, averting eye contact is not rudeness, and is instead a sign of respect.
  3. Talk with appropriate pace and tone. Don't gabble; don't drone. Lower your voice if you're a 'high talker'. Avoid talking in an Irish, Scottish or Australian accent - no one has a clue what you're saying!
  4. Be thoughtful in your manner and accurate with your language?. This is especially important in dealing with senior people.
  5. Dress like them and, especially for ladies, wear nothing that is distracting. By all means be feminine but not sexual in any way - you're better than that. Your value is in who you are, not in how you look.
  6. Smile and ensure congruent body language. If you're excited, tell your face about it. Your body-language should match your words.
  7. Paint word pictures and give real examples - relevant true stories that draw your audience into what you can do for them.
  8. Actively listen to understand and ask open insightful questions
  9. Focus on the other person's needs and personal agendas. It's all about them and all they really care about concerning you, is what you can potentially do for them.
  10. Display good manners and treat business cards with respect. This is especially important when dealing with those from another country. I once sat in a meeting and the sales rep for the potential supplier started picking his teeth with my boss' business card - true story.

If you embrace these ten tips when you meet people for the first time, they won't be able to do anything other than like you - you'll now have the chance to earn their trust and build a relationship. But before they meet you in the flesh, they see you online - probably on LinkedIn. What's your photo and persona like in digital and social? It's important, first impressions stick. Make no mistake; LinkedIn is the new business card, but it's exchanged in advance of meeting face-to-face. Your LinkedIn profile needs to highlight what you're all about, not your title, qualifications and work history. It will show social proximity and credibility - whether you're a person worthy of their time.

I have a collection of funny miscommunication clips on my website here. You can also see some very funny 'lost in translation' signs from Asia, click here. This is a classic Monty Python miscommunication clip.


Now it's over to you. What are the funniest miscommunications you've experienced as you've operated cross-culture? What techniques do you use to ensure you connect and avoid miscommunication?


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at www.TonyHughes.com.au or his sales methodology website at http://www.rsvpselling.com/.

Main image photo by Flickr: Sébastien Bertrand


Please Share: If you valued this article, please  share via your Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook social media platforms. We encourage you to join the conversation or ask questions. So feel free to add a comment on this post below.

Your Invitation: We invite you to subscribe to this blog. Subscription is free and it allows you to get access to all our subscriber only content and our periodic newsletter.



Are you searching for advice that will help you grow and manage sales - or lead your sales team? You are likely to find it here. This site brings you some of the latest expert thought leadership content on business to business (B2B) sales from the SMA Sales Masterminds.








SMA Masterminds
© 2018 All Rights Reserved.