Preferably lost in translation

by Eszter Hargittai on October 23, 2003

I haven’t always understood why some products have different names depending on the country. Nonetheless, there are cases where it’s clear why a name couldn’t or shouldn’t just be transplanted from one context to another. It’s one reason for having at least some locals come on board when expanding a product to new markets.

I am reminded of an Internet company a friend of mine started in Hungary a few years ago called World-Wide Link. That sounds innocent enough but the word “link” exists in Hungarian and means irresponsible or careless, which is probably not the image a company wants to convey or associate itself with in any way.

Then there are the cases that are much harder to anticipate. Apparently sales of a detergent called Ariel plummeted in Eqypt when rumors spread of its possible connection to Israel’s Ariel Sharon.



Ian 10.23.03 at 2:09 pm

You don’t have to move to another country – I used to deal with a business who rejoiced in the name of Careless **** [I’d better not say what they did because they managed to live up to their name] Careless was the name of the owner but surely a little thought…


Chris Bertram 10.23.03 at 3:07 pm

The SMEG range of cookers and fridges has certainly done less well in the UK because of its name than it might have done. gets you to their site, but doesn’t.

There was a well-known French brand of lemonade called Pschitt! which marketed poorly to English tourists too.


anon 10.23.03 at 3:11 pm

There was also Ford’s failure to sell many Nova’s in Spanish-speaking countries, where it sounds like “No va”, which means “doesn’t go”.


Davey 10.23.03 at 3:17 pm

Nope- the nova story is an urban legend.


Xavier 10.23.03 at 3:44 pm

During the 1996 election several leftist groups boycotted Dole canned fruits. Unfortunately, there’s no translation excuse for that.


Alex Halavais 10.23.03 at 4:04 pm

Other Nova-esque escapades here:

If you read the Snopes article carefully, the only thing that is an urban legend is that it hurt sales. That Spanish speakers probably didn’t associate it as much with “no va” as with “nova” (cf. bossa nova). Like with Coca-cola, though, it’s hard to deny that there is a connotation that doesn’t exist in English.


Cryptic Ned 10.23.03 at 5:45 pm

That Spanish speakers probably didn’t associate it as much with “no va” as with “nova” (cf. bossa nova).

“bossa nova” is Portuguese. The Spanish equivalent to “nova”, meaning “new”, is “nueva”.


ralphj 10.23.03 at 5:57 pm

In the Netherlands, a tobacco company once put a brand of cigarettes on the market named NSB. They sold absolutely nothing, since the political party that supported the nazi’s during WWII was named liked that (and, even to this day, traitors are commonly referred to as “NSB’ers”).


novakant 10.23.03 at 6:49 pm

Mitsubishi don’t sell their Pajero SUV under the same name in Spain, as they do in the rest of Europe, because in vernacular Spanish “pajero”, or something that is pronounced similarly, not sure, can mean something like, ahem, “wanker” ;) .


novakant 10.23.03 at 6:50 pm

Mitsubishi doesn’t sell their Pajero SUV under the same name in Spain, as they do in the rest of Europe, because in vernacular Spanish “pajero”, or something that is pronounced similarly, not sure, can mean something like, ahem, “wanker” ;) .


novakant 10.23.03 at 6:52 pm

– sorry for the double post –

and where is the “edit” button anyway :)


Keith M Ellis 10.23.03 at 7:29 pm

I knew someone would mention the “Nova” urban legend in this comment thread. I strongly suspect most (but not all) such stories are urban legends or partial exagerations. Many of these have been discussed on alt.folklore.urban over the years, and most are debunked.

Years ago, I wrote a satiric post on a.f.u. intending to illustrate what’s wrong with the “Nova” story:

Matsushita’s “Notice”


Antoni Jaume 10.23.03 at 8:23 pm

Even if nova is not used as such in Spanish, there are quite a few words that have a relation with it, so even an uncultured Spanish-speaker would probably understand its meaning. First there is the matter of the pronuntiation, Spanish use a tonic accent in words, so “nova” /’noba/ sounds different from “no va” /no’ba/.
To a cultured Spanish-speaker there is the word nova with the same meaning it has in English.

words related to nueva, nuevo: novedad, innovar, renovar. Most speakers know of fuerza-reforzar, puerta-portal, sueño-soñar, cuello-collar, trueno-tronar…



pathos 10.23.03 at 8:57 pm

And ripped from today’s headlines . . .

Embarrassed GM to Rename Car With Risque Overtones
Wed Oct 22,10:46 PM ET

MAKUHARI, Japan (Reuters) – General Motors Corp will rename its Buick LaCrosse in Canada because the name for the car is slang for masturbation in Quebec, embarrassed officials with the U.S. automaker said on Thursday.

GM officials, who declined to be named, said it had been unaware that LaCrosse was a term for self-gratification among teenagers in French-speaking Quebec.


Mark 10.23.03 at 9:02 pm

some reasons why products have different names in different countries.

1. The original brand name is difficult or impossible to say in the new countries language.
2. The brand name is owned by someone else in the new country. An example of this would be ‘Smarties’, which is a candy trademark owned by different companies in the UK and the USA.
3. The brand is named with an unused, but still well known name in the new country, for marketing purposes. A well known use of this is for washing powders.


Harry 10.23.03 at 10:28 pm

Jobb egy sör has mint egy Pizza Hát?


gogg 10.23.03 at 11:09 pm

Several years ago, I saw an ad for a Japanese laundry detergent named “Attack.” The ads ran on television in both Manila and Kuala Lumpur. As I recall, in Manila, the ad included the phrase “Attack from Japan.” I was really shocked. Given Japan’s history in the region, it didn’t seem like the greatest marketing slogan. I don’t know if they ever changed it, though.


Frolic 10.24.03 at 12:13 am

When I lived in Spain, I could have a Horniman in the morning (tea), a few pieces of Bimbo for lunch (bread), and when I hit the bars I always had a Dyk (whisky). Not sure if those products would make it in the English speaking world.


Zizka 10.24.03 at 3:32 am

Well, the diet candy “Ayds” ended up going out of business, I think. Working in the other direction, it seems to me that “Ebola” would be quite a cute name for a girl, but I doubt that it will ever catch on.


Belle 10.24.03 at 4:21 am

Re: gogg’s comment. Attack is still popular throughout SE Asia. Here in Singapore, for example, it’s one of the top detergents and I’ve got two boxes right in the next room. It just attacks dirt, and doesn’t appear to overrun your city and re-name it “Syonan”, herd Chinese people into the surf of Changi and then machine gun them, etc. At least, not so far.


Anthony 10.24.03 at 8:37 am

In Japan there were little mini snowploughs called ‘Little Bugger’.


eszter 10.24.03 at 4:42 pm

Jobb egy sör has mint egy Pizza Hát?

Harry, that’s really funny, I hadn’t heard that before. Sorry everyone else, it’s too complicated to translate..;)

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