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International Business: Hotels lost and found in translation

Published: Friday, Sept. 28 2012 7:01 a.m. MDT

Translations of hotel signs and amenities do not always come across as intended, just as you can see with this "awaful eco soap" from a Japanese hotel.

Adam Wooten

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I am not normally the type to get excited about complimentary soaps in hotel rooms; however, I had to chuckle when a family member recently returned from a business trip to Tokyo bearing a facial cleanser just for me. The package definitely sold itself short, reading, “Awaful Soap.”

International travelers have discovered entertaining mistranslations on other hotel amenities. Items for sale in one Chinese hotel room include “magical man pants” and “magical woman pants.” Although such names are quite curious, these magical pants do sound somewhat more appealing than the “uncomplimentary pants” offered in another Chinese hotel room.

Humorists have compiled various lists of mistranslated hotel signs. One of my favorites allegedly appeared in a hotel restaurant in Acapulco, Mexico, and read, “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.” Another sign in Bucharest, Romania, read, “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

Travelers wanting to guarantee that they can find at least one humorous souvenir or photo opportunity in their accommodations can make reservations at the Ah Chew Hotel in Singapore, the Poo Story Restaurant & Inn in Thailand or the Barf Bed & Breakfast in Barf, England. Every item bearing the hotel name could be a souvenir worth keeping.

Hotels with these quirky translation blunders may attract a few odd patrons like me who really find them charming and entertaining. However, most hotels and resorts will benefit from communicating more effectively with international visitors.

"Found in Translation," a new book by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche, relates the success of one hotel that adapted its culture and language to become a top hotel for international business travelers.

“Upon arrival, a young Japanese woman by the name of Izumi greets you,” wrote Kelly and Zetzsche. “As you check in, she hands you a Japanese newspaper and a card with instructions to make international phone calls. Once you get to your room, you remove your shoes and change into slippers, just in time for the bellboy to bring you some hot green tea. After a good night’s sleep, you wake up and head downstairs for the hotel breakfast, which of course, in the traditional Japanese style, consists of rice, soup, and other traditional Japanese food. There’s just one catch. You’re not in Japan. You’re in Michigan.”

Izumi Suzuki transformed a Sheraton hotel into the premier location for Japanese business people to stay when visiting Detroit. She taught the hotel chefs how to cook Japanese meals — just right — and she translated signs and instructions all over the hotel to make guests feel at ease. Competitors took notice and attempted to replicate Suzuki’s success.

“Many other hotels (in Detroit) tried to offer a Japanese breakfast, but because they did it without authenticity, they failed,” said Suzuki. “People from Mazda would drive one hour just to come to our hotel.”

Successes like this come to those who really pay attention to their target market and utilize expert help to adapt to that market’s needs. Such experts have the ability to guide any company in travel and hospitality — or any organization at all — beyond the blunders and mistranslations to successful adaptations that make customers feel comfortable with a particular product or service.

Incidentally, "Found in Translation" contains many examples of companies and organizations that have seen similar success in international and multilingual markets. The book is subtitled “How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World,” and I would describe it as a book of great short stories — case studies, really — for international business people, diplomats, travelers and linguists. The book is very entertaining to read on a plane … or in a hotel.

Until every hotel adopts these best practices for culturally and linguistically appropriate services to international clientele, we will all benefit from reading amusing language gaffes. Some will cause frustration, and others will be rather endearing, like the enthusiastic hotel sign in China that reads, “Honorlfic (sic) guest: Howdy! Welcome you go into the Wu Mao Hotel. … The enthusiasm, thoughtful service will bring you the unprecedented warm and fragrant and romantic. … Welcome to ask about or gracious presence!”

What are the funniest hotel mistranslations you have seen on your travels? Did they cause “awaful” frustration or “magical” amusement?

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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