Transcreation vs Translation: Iphone 7 marketing fail

This is hilarious and I am laughing as I type. The latest iphone 7 Launch doesn’t work in Cantonese and translates in colloquial Cantonese to This is  Penis.  And a Hong Kong friend shared that the Note 7 launch in Hong Kong was even more hilarious: “Note 7 didn’t just sound like penis, it meant “a shaft of penis”. 😱

I spent the last 4 years with a global retainer client vetting their press releases – it is very obvious when it is a Cantonese copywriter doing a Chinese press release because the adjectives and sentence structures are quite different. Cantonese has nine tones and Mandarin four and in between so many puns and homonyms. In fact, because of how colourful and poetic the language is, that’s how most get away with sensitive speech with colloquialism on social media in China. One of the best examples is 和谐 meaning harmony, but everyone types river crab 河蟹 instead. (the same phonetics work exactly the same way in Cantonese)

It’s unfortunate that 7 means Penis,but I remember working on the campaign for BMW’s 7 series launch in China in 2007 and our senior Chinese copywriter Wendy laoshi did such an amazing job navigating any of the unfortunate puns.

Lots of brands underestimate the importance of transcreation, translation really doesn’t cut it for products that are being launched in different markets. There are cultural differences, colloquialisms and superstitions to take note of, sending it off to a translator really isn’t a good idea.

My only advice is global and regional campaigns need to be carefully planned and transcreated, not the lazy way out of paying a few hundred dollars to have it translated. Sometimes, it doesn’t make any sense, other times, you get into a Penis joke war of words.

Well, at least it makes someone’s day. Copy worth a giggle, and terrible for the brand.

Updates: Following this, there has been a post going viral on wechat a collection of brilliant and funny ads using other brands following the Iphone 7 release. Unfortunately alot of it is difficult to translate as it plays with the poetry, pun and deep nuances of the Chinese language!


Juliana Loh

Juliana is a freelance marketing communications strategist with more than a decade of experience in the field of advertising, journalism and luxury hospitality, with a focus on China and the Asia Pacific region.

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