Translating Advertisements or How to get your head stuck in a mailbox in two different languages

  • Post published:November 6, 2020
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Mark Polizzotti once wrote that “translation is the silent waiter of linguistic performance: It often gets noticed only when it knocks over the serving cart.” This is spectacularly true of ad translation. The words on the glossy page or across the screen have one life goal: to sell. This functional requirement means that it is often embarrassingly clear when translated ads have missed their mark, while the reason why might not be so clear.
The best translated TV commercial I’ve ever seen was a Dutch commercial that came out in 2001 and was featured in a collection of the best ads worldwide which screened every year in our local theatre. This ad has stayed with me ever since, partly because it is simply hilarious, and partly because it makes perfect use of the humour available when multiple languages are called upon in advertising.

The commercial starts with a family getting into an old station-wagon. Two little blond girls pile into the back seat, while the grandparents manoeuvre themselves into the tight front of the car, Grandpa behind the wheel. As they buckle up, Grandpa turns the ignition key, and a song immediately starts playing, with the very upbeat, very clear lyrics, “I wanna #$%& you in the $#&…” resounding through the car. There is a moment when Grandma and Grandpa look at one another cautiously. But as they song continues, the grandparents slowly start to bob their heads happily to the music, clearly oblivious to the off-colour lyrics, while their granddaughters exchange a knowing look in the back seat. As the doddery old car drives away, the words “Engels leren?” (Want to learn English?) appear on the screen, followed by the name of the company that commissioned the ad: Soesman  Language Training.

The ad is brilliant because the exact same content yields different, but no less effective, comedic results for linguistically disparate audiences. For its target audience in the Netherlands (a country known for its advanced and broad command of English), many would have understood the risqué, but simple, song lyrics, but still related to the inter-generational divide in English proficiency represented by the grandparents and grand-kids. An international audience would have likewise found the humour inherent in being part of the in-group represented in the commercial: those who have learned English well enough at least to grasp the song’s meaning, but who can also relate to living similar awkward situations in moments when their grasp of English was not up to snuff. And for an English-speaking audience, the humour hits first in the shock of the words one would rarely hear on public television, and second in their incongruity with the cheerful, bucolic family scene.

This commercial, titled “A Day Trip,” hits both ends of a spectrum along which all translated advertisements can be found. On the one side, the globalized advertisement aims for a message and a linguistic expression so standard, so universal as to be functional in vastly different places and cultures with minimal tweaking. For these advertisements, the language of the ad can be more or less translated with little omission, addition, or substitution. After minimal manipulation, the product being advertised will soon find its way into the homes of customers across the globe, or at least so it is hoped. Advertisers know that some ads, or particular products, need special treatment in each language and locale. In these cases, translation is joined by localization to find the different words that will speak, and crucially, sell, to the local audience. Take the example given by Sulaiman and Wilson (2018) who analyzed Malay and English tourism brochures for the same destinations. They discovered that to sell a tourist destination to Western Anglophones, advertisers had to highlight all the activities the tourist could do once arrived. Tourism brochures pushed the non-stop, energy-pumping, action-rich vacations, using commanding imperatives in quick succession (“swim…climb…journey…”). While Western tourists preferred to see themselves as “adventurous explorers,” their Malay counterparts were buying an altogether different experience (Sulaiman and Wilson 6). Or rather, they were buying precisely the same experience, phrased differently. A Malay tourism ad aims at presenting a destination that “performs its role of fulfilling the requirements of a satisfactory vacation,” and does not urge the Malaysian would-be tourists to imagine themselves doing anything more strenuous than relaxing poolside (Sulaiman and Wilson 7). Sure, one could swim, climb, and journey should one wish, but no need to push oneself.

Still other ads are seemingly resistant to translation altogether. Take the example of Diesel’s “Be Stupid” ad campaign that took home the Grand Prix Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Campaign in 2010. The original campaign, launched in English, features slogans praising the pursuit of stupidity as a creative force (“Be Stupid.” “If we didn’t have stupid thoughts, we’d have no interesting thoughts at all,” etc.) alongside images of people performing such inadvisable acts as sticking their heads into mailboxes. When called upon to translate the Be Stupid ad campaign, French translators were at a loss. As Siemens (126) describes in her article about the Diesel campaign, the French language just has too many synonyms for the punchy English “stupid.” All the French equivalents were sufficiently unflattering, but none retained quite the same antithetical relationship with “smart” as in the English. This embarrassment of lexical riches is a more common problem than one might expect in translation. In the end, the translators resorted to including the French translation in small print in the margin. Diesel had branded stupid and evaded translation, but the campaign proved none too bright for the UK market where it was banned. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) feared kids might recreate the odd ad images and, well, Be Stupid.

Advertisement translation, localization, and transcreation, (the term given to the highly creative process of recreating an ad campaign or content in another language) offer unique and ever-shifting opportunities for multilingual communication, consumption, or confusion. It is also an area of the translation industry in which we can all engage, and every once in a while we will encounter brilliance, humour, and insight for reward as we unwittingly pile items up ever higher in our shopping carts.


Siemens, Elena. “Diesel® Plays the Fool: Translating Performance in Fashion Ads.” TranscUlturAl, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, 125-131.

Polizotti, Mark. “Why Mistranslation Matters.” New York Times, July 29, 2018, 10.

Sulaiman, Mohamed Zain, and Rita Wilson. “Translating Adventure Tourism: from Action to Relaxation.” Gema Online Journal of Language Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1-16, doi: 10.17576/gema-2018-1803-01.

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