Translation in advertising: Walking on eggshells

By now, most readers are almost certainly familiar with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's embarrassing gaffe with Sergei Lavrov, which saw the eager-to-impress Clinton present Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov with a red button featuring the Russian word "peregruzka" (overcharge) instead of the desired "perezagruzka" (reset). And, of course, we've all heard of Khrushchev's indignation when, having agreed to an interview on American TV, the interpreter somehow mistakenly informed Mr Khruschev that the interviewer had accused him of "baying like a hound." Or the now-infamous blunder at a Moscow hotel, where a sign written in English informed visitors: "You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursdays." The point is that these bloopers are inevitable. In essence, the art of translation is no different from walking on eggshells. Each word carries several different meanings and cultural connotations, and their combinations almost never coincide in different languages - meaning, unfortunately, that mistakes are bound to happen, and when they do, it may be best to use the opportunity to take note of these cultural and linguistic differences.
Perhaps the one sphere in which translation bloopers can be the most costly - with perhaps the exception of politics - is advertising. Some gaffes result purely from major cultural differences, while others scream of human error or laziness. It seems that many international companies enter the Russian market with slogans that wind up being either completely meaningless in Russian or downright untranslatable.

Yet, while some examples highlight slight cultural differences, there have been other instances that could only have resulted from laziness, or the reluctance of company executives to double check what the foreign words decorating their products actually mean. Shoppers at a popular retail chain in London certainly suffered quite a shock when they discovered what their trendy t-shirts had written across the front in Russian: "Ochistim Rus' ot vcyekh nyerusskikh", or, as the shoppers soon learned, "We will cleanse Russia of all non-Russians." These unsuspecting English speakers had been happily sporting their fashionable new shirts with an exotic logo, all the while unwittingly propagating a right-wing ideal of ethnic cleansing. The company sure must have been grateful to the Russian shopper who pointed out such an outrageous blooper!

The benefit of such mistakes is that they force those who make them - or those most severely humiliated - to re-examine their preconceptions and perceptions of not only the foreign language that made them blush in embarrassment, but also the foreign culture they may have previously been ignorant of. I am fairly certain that Hillary Clinton's moment of disgrace was followed sometime later by a smile, and then the thought, "Hey, at least now I know a few words in Russian, and that is one complex language!"

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