Don't Let Your Global Business Efforts Get Lost in the Translation!

Yes, even this saavy global traveller had an embarrassing experience once when presenting a gift to a Japanese businessman. I had picked up a snack gift pack on the way to our meeting. The precise number of snacks in the sleeve was four. I thought this was an appropriate quantity to enjoy and share with his colleagues. I didn't realize until later that anything boxed or presented in the quantity of four means death to the Japanese. Needless to say, I conveyed to him the "kiss of death" at the very beginning of our business relationship. I never heard from him again. Live and learn.

I know you are chuckling but don't miss my point: mistranslation (words, gesture in my case, small nuances) can sabotage your best global marketing efforts!

Business travelers often are advised to beef up their foreign language skills before venturing overseas. Even if not fluent in the local language, the executive who can throw around a greeting or conversational phrase here and there may score enough points to clinch a deal over a competitor.

The trouble begins, however, when those with limited knowledge of a foreign language, or even those professing more than a passing knowledge, proceed to conduct business in that language. The situation gets rougher still when companies use poorly qualified translators for their promotions, either to save money or simply because of sloppy screening of the person or firm chosen to translate.

Consider the following experiences:

1. A Canadian importer of Turkish shirts destined for Quebec used a dictionary to help him translate into French the label "Made in Turkey." His final translation: "Fabrique en Dinde." True, "dinde" means "turkey." But it refers to the bird, not to the country, which in French is Turquie.

2. An Otis Engineering Corp. display at a Moscow exhibition produced as many snickers among the Russians as it did praise. Company executives were not happy to learn that a translator had rendered in Russian a sign identifying "completion equipment" as "equipment for orgasms."

3. Japan's Olfa Corp. sold knives in the United States with the warning "Caution: Blade extremely sharp. Keep out of children."

4. In one country the popular Frank Perdue Co. slogan, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," read in local language something akin to "It takes a sexually excited man to make a chicken affectionate."

5. One company in Taiwan, trying to sell diet food to expatriates living there, urged consumers to buy its product to add "roughage" to their systems. The instructions claimed that a person should consume enough roughage until "your tool floats." Someone dropped the "s" from "stool."

6. How about the Hong Kong dentist who advertised "Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists."

7. Or the hotel in notoriously polluted Mexico City that proclaimed: "The manager has personally passed all the water served here."

8. General Motors Corp.'s promotion in Belgium for its car that had a "body by Fisher" turned out to be, in the Flemish translation, "corpse by Fisher."

Don't Get Lost In Mistranslation

How do you jump-start your cultural learning to insure your global marketing efforts don't get lost in the translation? You don't need to go far off the beaten path. Visit a brick and mortar or online store (two of my favorites are and that specializes in world travel equipment and incidentals. They typically offer information and sell books and audio cassette tapes with which you can brief yourself on the economy, dress, language, cuisine, etiquette and other vital statistics of just about any country in the world. Some specialize in lessons on what to do and what not to do when conducting business in specific foreign country. Travel book stores and even a conventional bookstore chain usually has a respectable selection of fairly sophisticated country-by-country travel guides. You'll find more than enough to get you started. I particularly recommend Roger Axtell's book "Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World," a simple, amusing and informative survival guide to understanding cultures other than your own.

Long after my Japanese encountering, I learned to keep a sense of humor about my own and others' interpersonal missteps, to exercise tolerance and make good-faith efforts to bridge differences and find common ground on the global frontier. You should too. Your cross-cultural encounter will go that much smoother.

©Copyright 2002 Laurel J. Delaney. All rights reserved.

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Laurel Delaney ( is the founder of and the creator of "Borderbuster," an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog. She can be reached at