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Cultural traps: funny translations are less of a giggle in business, reflects Alison Thomas

Who can resist a superior chuckle when they come across garbled translations into English? "Boiled combinations" on a Russian menu turn out to be nothing more unseemly than boiled vegetables. A notice in a Spanish hotel asks ladies "to refrain from having children on the bar stools". All very funny. But what if it was your brand image at stake?

You would think the multinationals would have it all sewn up, yet they have been responsible for some spectacular blunders. Like the soft drinks manufacturer whose slogan "Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation" read in Taiwan as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." Or Parker Pen, which confused "embarazar" with "embarrass" and invited Mexicans to buy its new ballpoint because "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."

Brand names can be equally hazardous, as Ford discovered in South America when it launched a truck called Fiera - Spanish for "ugly old woman". Using numbers and letters doesn't help. Toyota's MR2 ran into trouble in French countries - say it aloud and you will see why.

Even when your language is accurate, local culture can trip you up. If the Swiss parfumier who wanted a sexy name for his latest after-shave had watched British television, he might have had second thoughts before opting for Kevin.

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