‘Con Canon, tu puedes’ works almost as ‘You can with Canon’, the ‘con’ and the ‘Canon’ resonating in a similar way to ‘can’ and ‘Canon’. Not all advertising slogans translate so well, though, and on occasion the marketing whizzes have screwed up big time. You would not, perhaps, expect a Spanish drinks manufacturer in the 1950s to figure that whisky named ‘Dyc’ might cause hilarity among the English-speaking export market. You would, however, think that today’s multinationals, with their massive marketing budgets and their squadrons of spin-doctoring sloganeers, would manage to dream up names and slogans that did not have sexual or scatological overtones when translated into other languages. You would be wrong.
Latin America, in particular, has fallen prey to some of the more unfortunate English-to-Spanish blunders. When Coors beer translated its hip motto Turn it Loose, it came out as ‘Sueltalo con Coors’, which could be taken to mean something like ‘Loosen your bowels’. Sadly, this story, which is repeated ad infinitum on the Internet, appears to be nothing but an urban legend. At least according to a recent book called Word Myths (Oxford University Press, 2004), in which author David Milton claims that Coors never actually used Turn it Loose as a slogan in the first place. Calling up the beer company lies outside the scope of this article, but I’m assuming that Milton has done his homework. Killjoy.
Another oft-quoted translation gaffe is Braniff airline’s ‘Fly in leather’. In Spanish, the translation is simple: ‘Vuela en cuero’. ‘En cueros’ (with an ‘s’), however, is a colloquial expression meaning ‘starkers’, so it’s easy to see how passengers might have thought they were being urged to ‘Fly buck naked’. Well, why not? Milton concedes that during the 1980s the American airline brought in leather seating in an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes – and that they, therefore, may have used the ‘Fly in leather’ slogan. Unfortunately, the company folded shortly afterwards, so there is no-one left to ask. Continental Airline’s CA silverware, on the other hand, is there for all to see – and order – at the CA website. The firm’s initials are repeated along the length of the cutlery, CA-CA-CA-CA. In other words: caca, every Spanish toddler’s favourite word and obsession.
I don’t know what Mr. Milton has to say about the American Dairy Association’s ‘Got milk?’ campaign as, I’ll be honest, the free peep inside the book on-line only lets you see a handful of pages. Still, I’ve read a million times how the Mexican campaign used the Spanish translation ‘¿Tienes leche?’ – which, depending how you take it, means: ‘Are you lactating?’ The slogan was, apparently, withdrawn and changed to something with less ‘vulgar’ connotations.
Neither am I sure what happened to the legendary ‘I saw the potato’ T-shirts, produced by an American T-shirt maker in Miami who as hoping to tap into the Spanish market during a Papal visit. But if it’s a true story, they’ve probably become a collector’s item. It’s a brilliant mistake. ‘Yo vi la papa’. ‘El Papa’ is, of course, the Pope, but ‘la papa’ is ‘the potato’. Vi la Papa
Car manufacturers seem to have a particularly tough time coming up with names for models that work well in different languages. You would think that Mitsubishi couldn’t possibly be selling a car called the ‘Pajero’ – anywhere in the world, let alone Spain. But they are. I suppose that if Salvador Dalí can create a work of art called ‘The Great Masturbator’, Mitsubishi can launch a car called ‘the jerker off’ – which is how pajero translates in Spanish. Although the model was marketed as the Montero in Spanish-speaking countries, if you type Mitsubishi Pajero into your browser you’ll see that there are still plenty of w*****s on the roads in Spain. And while we’re on the topic of unlikely-sounding car models, how about the Nissan Moco? A car called ‘bogey’. Or the even harder to fathom, and I’m not making this up, honest, the Masda Laputa. A car called prostitute.
But best of all the don’t-you-just-want-it-to-be true linguistic urban legends must be the one about Frank Perdue’s chickens. Frank Perdue (1920-2005) was a farm boy from Maryland who became a household word, face and voice in folksy ads for his brand of fresh chickens. His first major advertising campaign, launched in 1971, touted the tag-line: ‘It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken.’ Alas, this very clever piece of word play was translated for the Mexican campaign as: ‘Se necesita un hombre duro para enternecer un pollo.” In other words, on billboards all over Mexico the ‘homely’ figure of Mr. Perdue declared with a grin: ‘It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.’