Foreign Language Checks

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

When you finally identify a name for your business, product or service, you must conduct proper due diligence to ensure that you have a legal right to use the name. Trademark searches are mandatory and I’d strongly recommend talking to a great trademark attorney. A little upfront time and money can save you a ton of heartache and cash at a later point (if, for example, the name you decide to use is challenged by someone who is already using a similar name).

One of the other things you should do is conduct foreign language checks using native speakers to identify if the name has unfavorable meaning in a foreign language. Even if you do not plan to market in a foreign country, you do not want your name associated with unfavorable meanings. Here are some examples that prove the point:

  • Barf Detergent – In Persian apparently Barf means snow. But can you imagine the conflict in the mind of an English speaker when seeing a detergent called Barf?

  • Vicks – When Vicks was introduced in Germany, somebody forgot that the German pronunciation of “v” is “f” which made their “Vicks” brand name sound like slang for sexual intercourse (the name in German speaking countries is now Wick which translates correctly).
  • Scat Airlines – An airline based in Kazakhstan. Not sure if an English speaker would fly them.

  • Emerdata – This is the reincarnation of Cambridge Analytica. I find great irony in the fact that the name translations in Portuguese and Italian refer to the act of defecation.
  • IKEA – IKEA has a unique naming convention that often leads to translation errors. For example, some product names sounded like sex acts. And in many cases, IKEA names just sound amusing to English speakers:

Perhaps there is an alternative strategy to conducting a disaster check on international translation. What if you actively looked for names that translate well across the major languages of the world? As an example, one of the reasons that Kit Kat is so successful in Japan is the name “Kit Kat” famously translates to “You will surely win.”

“Good Translation” might be an excellent naming strategy!

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Recently I discovered a wonderful infographic on the different meanings of colors in various cultures. It got me thinking that people who are branding a product, service or company might be unintentionally offending some of their potential customers. In the use of colors for example, Westerners/Americans would consider grey to be a good logo color to show respect, but in Japan the color for respect would be white and in China it would be yellow. Grey in Japan would be more aligned with words like modesty or reliability.

Sometimes the potential for offending your target customer is obvious. For example, Assitalia is one of the biggest insurance companies in Italy. I am sure the company developed its name without thinking about international considerations and in Italy the name is fine. But if they ever wanted to expand to an English speaking country…well, let’s just say there might be a problem.

But sometimes the potential for offending your customer is less obvious. Most of the large companies I work with agree to conduct foreign language checks to ensure that the names have no problematic connotations in the major foreign languages. In one instance that prevented us from making a major mistake. It turns out one of the names we developed had an obscure slang reference in the Spanish language to a body part that…well, let’s just say it was not a good choice of name.

Some of my smaller clients do not want to do foreign language checks because they are not planning to sell internationally. That is a mistake! Even if you have no plans to sell your product internationally, you need to beware of potential unintended consequences of your actions.

For example, people of Hispanic or Latino origin in the US represent over 17% of the population. What if you unintentionally chose a name that had a bad (but not obvious) connotation in the Spanish language? Would you like to offend over 17% of your potential market?

It is relatively easy to investigate potential unintended language consequences. There are linguistic companies or freelancers who will do this work for a reasonable fee. You can also try to do it yourself if you know different native language speakers. Just ask them questions like:

• How is this word pronounced by a native speaker of your language?

• Is this word similar in sound or appearance to other words in your language? If so, what do those words mean?

 • Are there any inappropriate associations with this word? Is this word similar to any slang terms of the language?

Finally, if you want to check to see if a common word is being used as slang for something else in the English language you can always check the Urban Dictionary. However, be aware that, even though the Urban Dictionary is regulated by volunteer editors (similar to Wikipedia), some of the content of the Urban Dictionary is sexual in nature (for adults only!).