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International Business: In global airline marketing, idioms must be handled carefully

Published: Saturday, Jan. 1 2011 1:24 a.m. MST

Airliners.net

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In 1987, Braniff Airlines ran ads on television, on radio and in newspapers flaunting the fact that its jets were equipped with all-leather seats. Spanish-language radio ads in the Florida market were the first to reveal an unintended double entendre. Braniff had translated its "fly in leather" slogan as fly "en cuero," which sounds like Spanish slang for "fly naked."

Some speculated the gaffe was an intentional move by marketing to attract attention, but the executive who developed the ad confirmed that the double meaning was accidental.

The airline industry is international by nature, and airlines must adapt their business and language to thrive in other countries. Companies like Braniff have seen many successes, but they have also occasionally failed to anticipate the connotations of a foreign idiom or figurative regional expression in marketing.

Marketing messages often contain colloquial or idiomatic language to evoke an emotional response in the target audience. However, some of this language can unintentionally carry undesirable meanings in translation and may even harm marketing efforts.

An airline ticket office in Copenhagen, Denmark, once reportedly displayed an English sign reading, "We take your bags and send them in all directions." Such a sign may technically be correct and sound perfectly fine to a non-native speaker of English. However, a native speaker detects a subtle implication that the airline is disorganized and likely to lose the luggage. In this case, we do not know if perhaps the company knew about this connotation and simply chose to be honest.

A billboard advertisement for Uzbekistan Airways in Tashkent International Airport evokes wariness in its English-speaking travelers by featuring a jet buried in the clouds with only the tail visible and the phrase "good luck" appearing below it in large letters.

This phrase is usually very positive and was almost certainly intended to express well wishes such as "have a nice flight" or "bon voyage," but the end result in context is a far cry from those more reassuring and positive phrases. Instead, the message passengers receive is "good luck — you'll need it!"

In the book "Blunders in International Business," author David A. Ricks writes of another airline promotion lost in translation. This one caused serious PR damage.

"A U.S. airline that proudly advertised swank 'rendezvous lounges' available on its Boeing 747 jets may have wished its promotion had never reached Brazil," Ricks said. "After advertising these accommodations, the company belatedly learned that 'rendez-vous' in Portuguese represents a room that is rented out for prostitution. Although the promotion was successful in attracting attention, sales were not boosted. No Brazilian wanted to be seen getting on or off the airline's plane."

As another example, Wings Air, an Indonesian airline (the official language in Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia), has used the short, grammatically incorrect slogan "Fly is Cheap" on signs, aircraft, airsickness bags and more. Instead of emphasizing affordability and helping customers to feel good about saving a few dollars while experiencing high-quality service, this awkward English emphasizes low-quality connotations of the word "cheap."

Wings Air has apparently noticed the error and has since updated some of its airsickness bags and meal boxes to more appropriately read, "Flying is Cheap." A slightly more delicate marketing touch in English might have resulted in using an even more positive word like "affordable."

Airlines hope that customers will overlook translation blunders as innocent mistakes that do not reflect the quality of service offered. With a little luck and a large market share, the "cheap" blunders of Wings Air and Uzbekistan Airways will not drastically affect their bottom line, but allusions to illicit on-board activities or "flying naked" will certainly leave someone feeling embarrassed.

Have you seen similar airline mistranslations while traveling recently? If so, please leave a comment to share your anecdote. Next time you travel, watch out for similar gaffes. A good chuckle over a translation blunder can make your next international "rendezvous" a little more enjoyable.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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