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International Business: Toy translation blunders add laughs, confusion to gift giving

Published: Thursday, Nov. 24 2011 2:00 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2009 file photo, Raymond Brockmann, of North Attleboro, Mass., shops at a Toys "R" Us store in North Attleboro.

AP Photo/Gretchen Ertl, File

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This holiday shopping season, Toys "R" Us is taking some heat for selling a baby doll whose babbling allegedly includes the "B" word — something most mothers obviously do not want their daughters to hear while still young enough to play with dolls.

The dolls, known as the You and Me Interactive Play and Giggle Triplet Dolls, are not the only toys to cause commotion because of language problems. Countless internationally manufactured toys have experienced such problems, as evidenced by the many pages of toy translation blunders on websites like Engrish.com and EngrishFunny.com.

"A toy bear, made in Taiwan, 'sang' Christmas carols in English," writes author David A. Ricks in his book "Blunders in International Business." "One song, though, didn't quite come out correctly: it was 'Oh, little town of Birmingham.' It helps to know the story!"

Packaging and instructions, in particular, are often subject to terrible mistranslations — some of which result in identify crises. For example, foreign manufacturers have mislabeled toy seals as "dolphins," pandas as "dinosaurs," Superman as "Spiderman" and Colonel Sanders as "Uncle Sam." This mislabeling is often evidence of trademark infringement, which is even more obvious when Transformers become a "Frams Torners" or "Super Robot Deformation." Even so, I am not quite sure why a My Little Pony became a "Demon Donkey."

Some toy labels are complete nonsense. For instance, a tool set invites children, "Be subjected to the public like," and a Dragon Ball toy reads, "May pre house the seamy side volitation!!!" Other toys are bewilderingly stamped with not-so-catchy phrases like "Convulse enter!!" and "This is Batman! He will catch all baddy!!"

Some poorly translated packaging will make a little sense, but will overpromise results like "infinite pleasure" and a great "amused exponent." A "kick board" scooter sets high expectations with the assurance, "This board changes you. You can become light more stylish than whom. Everyone accepts this fact."

Other taglines make you wonder if the company really wants you to buy anything at all. Inadvertently unappealing marketing text includes mentions of blandness, anger, suffering and even infections from a Tickle Me Elmo.

Most of the time consumers can comprehend the overall intended purpose of mistranslated toy verbiage despite erroneous instruction or text. However, will consumers remain lost when printed instructions explain "how to decompose" or how to "test your lucky"? Should a parent include batteries with a Christmas gift if the toy packaging reads, "batteries are not required as it works battery"? Are purchasers assuming unnecessary risks if they do not quite understand what warning labels mean when they say, "don't be fly," "the toys can't eat" or "never throw out the other person's head"?

Ironically, some mistranslated packaging includes bold statements about the product quality, even warning consumers not to use the product if they spot any potential defects. One so-called certificate of quality reads, "The cotton in this product, the hair should not enter mouth. Israel exempt and eat carelessly."

If the warnings are of such low quality as to be completely illegible, can consumers trust that manufacturers use enough care to avoid any obviously hazardous elements such as lead paint? The uncertainty created by translation blunders may leave vigilant consumers uneasy and decrease sales.

Admittedly, in other countries, these botched English translations will not always affect sales, particularly when the English is added simply to make an Asian toy in an Asian store look exotic or sophisticated. However, when they are imported to the United States, you can imagine that these mistranslations may cause shoppers to pause. Similarly, American toys exported with haphazard translations can be suspect as well.

As always, manufacturers and marketers would be wise to get translation right before exporting. However, if you find yourself staring at bewilderingly mistranslated assembly instructions late Christmas Eve, post a photo to Engrish.com or EngrishFunny.com and we will all benefit from sharing a good laugh.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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