There are great stories – some of them apocryphal – about product names and marketing slogans that don’t work when translated into another language. Many are so good I badly want them to be true.
- Pepsi’s “Come Alive! You’re In The Pepsi Generation” was mistranslated in China as Pepsi will bring your dead ancestors back to life.
- Chevy Nova is said not to have worked to sell cars in Spanish because “no va” means doesn’t go. (Sadly false)
- Purdue Chicken’s “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” became it takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate in Spanish.
Apparently Airbus really did have a problem with its name when selling planes in China in the 1990s. An anecdote in Scott Hamilton’s new Air Wars: The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing explains,
In the early 1990s, Airbus had a recognition problem in China, depsite having sold a few A300s and A310s there. And there was the lost-in-translation issue. Leahy recalls an early meeting with one of the major Chinese airlines. Meetings were in large rooms with charis set around the wall. The Chinese had a translator and so did the visitors. Meetings broke up precisely on the allotted time.
Leahy and his team explained the structure of Airbus and discussed the Airbus forecast for Chinese aviation. When the meeting ended in exactly 60 minutes, the Chinese airline chairman, through the translator, thanked Leahy for his visit, but said they wouldn’t need his product. You see, Leahy was told, the airline was installing jetways and no longer needed buses to move passengers.
At least the A320 narrowbody wasn’t named the Airbus Nova.