It may not be the international language of love but, for Thai couples browsing IKEA habitats, Swedish can sound raunchy indeed. To the Thai ear, the store’s Redalen bedframe may conjure images of getting to third base, while the Jättebra plant pot sounds suspiciously like a slang word for “sex” – among other possible crude translations. So what’s a retail behemoth with stores in 38 countries to do when its signature product names get lost in translation?
As the Wall Street Journal reports, IKEA has taken a proactive approach. Four years before opening its first Bangkok store in late 2011, the company hired a team of linguists to scrutinise and then carefully transliterate its product names into the Thai alphabet. Sometimes changing a single letter sound was enough to prevent misunderstandings. Cultural crisis averted.
But fortunately for those who love a good pun, many other companies have not fared so well when introducing products in Asia – particularly in China, where the character-based Cantonese and Mandarin languages can, upon translation, render a product or a slogan utterly hilarious. When Microsoft launched its search engine Bing in China, for instance, techie blogs were quick to point out that “bing” can mean “disease,” “ice,” “soldier” or “pancake,” depending on one’s intonation. According to legend, Pepsi’s launch in China was confounded by the translation of its slogan from “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” to various iterations of “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”
And, finally, when the Happy Days spin-off show Joanie Loves Chachi first aired on Korea’s US Armed Forces Network, American soldiers conflated “Chachi” with “Jaji,” the Korean word for “penis”. (Scott Baio has claimed on numerous occasions that the misunderstanding boosted the show’s popularity in Korea, though the myth-busting website Snopes.com disagrees.)