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It's All Greek to Me... International Lessons in Business Communications

Rosemary Gillespie - Thursday, September 16, 2010


I’ve talked before about the need to choose your words oh-so-carefully in business communications, and nowhere is that process more complex than in international sales and marketing. We’ve all heard the hilarious anecdotes about translation errors made when English-speaking marketers try to take their campaigns global – hilarious, that is, unless you’re the person responsible – and the beauty of these cautionary tales is that they’re often made by multinationals: household names that can afford solid product research and really have no excuses for making this kind of mistake.

Some of the more famous examples:

  • Coca Cola’s first translation into Chinese was ‘ko-ko-ken-la’… or, in a particular Chinese dialect, ‘bite the wax tadpole’. Researchers found a better alternative amongst the 40,000 Chinese characters available to them in the closer phonetic rendering ‘ko-kou-ko-le’; fortuitously, this translates roughly to ‘happiness in the mouth’.
  • Nor is their competition immune. Pepsi’s ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’ campaign promised Taiwanese-speaking consumers that Pepsi would ‘bring your ancestors back from the dead’.
  • Swedish furniture giant IKEA named a desk FARTFULL. Enough said.
  • American Motors tried to project a strong, masculine, heroic image by naming its new car the ‘Matador’. For Puerto Rican consumers, this translated to ‘killer’, which was particularly unfortunate in view of the country’s badly maintained roads and high road toll.

Yes, it’s all fun and games when it’s someone else’s neck on the chopping block. But let’s put aside the comic blunders of the world’s multinationals for a moment because your job – using English to communicate with a largely English-speaking market – presents its own challenges. All too often, there is a big difference between ‘communicating’ and ‘making your meaning understood’.


The study of communication and meaning is called semiotics, which looks at how signs and symbols (including words) combine to convey messages. To cut a long story short, the way words work – or rather, how effectively they communicate your intended meaning – is largely dependent on context, including physical barriers like language, and cultural and psychological factors, such as the upbringing and values of the target. The beauty of the English language is that it is so delightfully nuanced but this brings with it an ugly truth: there’s no guarantee that everyone in your target group will take from your business communications the meaning you intended. Ask anyone who has ever issued a party invitation – a value-laden word like ‘casual’ used to describe your dress code means very different things in Maroochydore than in Melbourne!


So the rules for clear business communications are:

  • Refine your message: work out exactly what it is you want to say before saying it
  • Think about your target market: age, culture, level of education, language barriers etc
  • Look at the word options (synonyms) available to you: we’ve talked about this before but, to paraphrase CS Lewis’s famous piece of writing advice, don’t use ‘infinitely’ when ‘very’ will do or you’ll have nothing left to use when you want to talk about something really infinite. And avoid value-laden words where possible because, simply put, not everybody shares your values
  • Don’t forget context: the format of your message (press release, shareholder report, tender, invitation, email) and the environment you’re using them (social, political, cultural, etc).

So to conclude: don’t think you’re immune to translation problems just because you work only in English, or even just in one English-speaking market (‘fanny pack’, anyone?) because understanding relies on so much more than merely a shared dialect.


And here’s a piece of free advice, courtesy of Proof Communications: if you’re ever toasting colleagues in Japan over a friendly glass of sake, don’t say ‘cin cin’, the Italian for ‘cheers’. It means ‘small penis’ in Japanese. Offence might well be taken…

For help with your communications, contact Rosemary on 02 9314 7506 or 0411 123 216 or email

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