Translation Urban Myths and Legends

Three of the Most Outrageous Translation Urban Myths and Legends You’ve Ever Heard

Translation urban myths and legends, false stories told as fact, even crop up in language translation. And while plenty of people know that these stories are false, somehow they keep getting perpetuated year after year.

These stories have been repeated so many times.

By translators trying to demonstrate how delicate their work is.

By uninformed journalists attempting to provide commentary on worldwide language issues.

I’ve even seen college marketing professors repeat these myths in order to make a point about the importance of proper translation in pushing product marketing to a global marketplace.

If you were to take some of the translation urban myths as fact, you’d think that all translators were ignoramuses that had no clue about how to translate anything at all without offending someone or another!

Luckily, these translation urban myths have proven to be just that: legends.

Just because something proves to be untrue doesn’t necessarily mean that people will actually stop believing it to be true.

Most people would rather go on believing some fantastic story about a clueless translator than believe that the story never happened in the first place, or that at least it never happened like the legend says.

So, as in most things dealing with language translation that the general public is fairly ignorant of, it falls into the hands of translators to remedy the situation and try to help people understand that, hey, these gaffes aren’t quite what they’ve reported as being.

(Hmm, now if only those people would believe us, but that’s an article for another occasion.)

So, while there are a many language translation urban legends out there, here’s a list of what I consider to be the top three most common:

Translation Urban Myths

1. The Chevy Nova didn’t sell well in Latin America because Nova means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.

Most likely one of the most famous language translation urban legends to ever come out, this legend has been perpetuated for at least the last decade or so. I even remember citing it in a research paper I used in college.

According to the legend, General Motors decided to try and market a car to Latin America. They decided on branding the name of their car the Chevy Nova. This was a supposedly huge mistake that any translator worth half a brain could have figured ou.

Since the name Nova can be split into two words in Spanish, “no va” which could mean one of a million different variants of “doesn’t run” or “won’t go,” and nobody in their right mind would ever want to buy a car that didn’t run or go anywhere, the brand shot itself in the foot with the name. This supposedly destroyed GM’s credibility in Latin America and leading to abysmal sales of the vehicle.

Well, folks, it’s false.

The Chevy Nova actually sold really well in Latin America for about seven years. It was even a top seller in Venezuela. GM doesn’t deserve the bad rap that they’ve been given over this.

2. When Coca-Cola initially marketed its drink in China, the name was inadvertently transliterated to a phrase meaning “bite the wax tadpole.”

This is one of many urban legends surround Coca-Cola. It seems like the bigger the institution, the more willing people are to believe anything that is written about it. It doesn’t matter that the characterization could in fact be fairly ludicrous to begin with.

The story goes that when Coca-Cola was first being brought into China, Chinese shopkeepers used phonetically-equivalent characters to represent the drink. However, the meaning of the characters strung together was nonsensical, one of which is the famous “bite the wax tadpole.”

This language translation urban legend is pretty far-fetched on its surface for a couple of reasons. First, there is no way that Coke would ever market its signature drink in any country, let alone any country with a market as big as China’s, without controlling the marketing materials and slogans associated with the drink.

To think that Coke didn’t translate their materials, but rather left them up for Chinese shopkeepers to independently mimic the name of Coke is rather preposterous.

The truth is much different, however. When Coca-Cola first registered their trademark in China, they did a very good job of finding characters that approximated the sound, but that also presented a positive and good meaning that would resonate with the people in a nice way.

The result was a very good combination of characters which actually meant something more along the lines of “happiness in the mouth.”

3. Sales at Sav-on drug stores in California slumped because management changed the name to Osco, which in Spanish sounds similar to “asco,” meaning disgusting.

This legend is similar to the Chevy Nova legend. On the surface it sounds plausible, but when looked at more clearly, is a bogus claim. It’s also similar in another way. It’s an easy legend to promulgate because of the similarities in pronunciation of the word to something with a negative connotation in Spanish.

Another reason that this legend tends to work is because of what happened after the name change. Sales did in fact slump when the name was changed to Osco. However, the reasons were not due to the seemingly negative connotation of the word in Spanish.

Rather, consumers who bought their medicine at Sav-on were not willing to buy from a name that they didn’t trust. It didn’t matter what the name happened to be. In this case the name just happened to be a name that was similar to a negative word in Spanish.

These are just three of the countless language-related urban legends that exist. There are probably countless others throughout the world since language and translation is obviously a global phenomenon. It would definitely be an interesting exercise to look at some of these types of legends. To see how similar or different they are to the three I’ve mentioned here.

But in the meantime, language translation urban myths will continue to be spread through news reports, emails, and college textbooks. However, it’s important to know that the above stories are definitely false. The next time someone tries to repeat one of these so-called “marketing blunders,” you will know how to respond.


P.S. Avoid being a bad translator by knowing all the right tips and tricks. You can find those in my book.

Leave a Reply