Language Matters: What's in a Name?
When naming healthcare products and processes, companies should keep an eye on the globe.
by Robert Sprung
Mention translation and foreign languages, and you may hear the following anecdote: "When General Motors marketed the Chevrolet Nova in Latin America, its sales plummeted there. It turns out that 'no va' in Spanish means 'doesn't go.' "
This story is more urban myth than reality. No native of Latin America would confuse nova, a single word accented on the first syllable, with no va, two words accented on the second syllable, especially since the word nova means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English: "a star that suddenly burns bright and then fades away."
But the Nova story isn't far off the mark. Naming problems can easily contribute to fiascoes abroad.
For instance, when the Totes rain gear company was about to open a German office, the company decided that, since Germany translates to Deutschland in German, it would simply call the new subsidiary Totes Deutschland. No sooner had the press releases gone out than the company discovered its mistake: Totes Deutschland means "dead Germany."
In the medical and pharmaceutical industries, marketers have elevated naming to a fine art, creating such words as Zantac and Tylenol. But for every high-gloss name from marketing, engineers and tech writers must come up with dozens of names. Consider all the proprietary processes and features associated with most new products. Imagine an Easy-Glide closure with patented Sure-Shot technology or a new Pop-It safety cap.
For packaging and labeling engineers and writers, the implications of naming go far beyond public relations: problems with the names of products or components can cause confusion and create potential liability. Understanding these issues will help raise the visibility of international labeling issues within your organization.
WHEN GOOD NAMES GO WRONG
International trade is strewn with plenty of unfortunate names. Consider Vicks, the popular chest balm and inhalant. If a speaker of the German language were to pronounce that name, he or she might blush because of its unambiguous scatological meaning in that language. Consequently, the firm ended up renaming the product Wick in German.
Many simple English words translate into words with very different meanings in other languages. The French call these faux amis, or "false friends"—words with a different meaning from their source language. Take the simple word mist, which might appear on that Vicks inhalant. Unfortunately, in German the word stands for "manure." There are literally hundreds of such common false friends that act as linguistic land mines.
Some names are problematic for another reason. Consider marketing the writing instrument LePen in France, where a French politician on the extreme right shares that name.
Even names that are not necessarily offensive can fail abroad because of pronunciation problems. This is a critical consideration with pharmaceuticals or medical products for the general public. If the name is a tongue twister for a consumer in a Tokyo pharmacy (e.g., a name with many l's and r's), a competing product with an easier-to-pronounce name could prevail at the point of sale.
MAKING SENSE OF NAMING
Here are a few guidelines that can help simplify naming:
- Consider using words of Latin or Greek origin. It's no coincidence that these words are immensely popular internationally. They're usually easy to pronounce, often familiar, and have clear meanings or associations, which is especially important in the medical arena where trust is critical.
- Consider using proper or place names. Johnson & Johnson connotes trust around the world.
- Use simple English words as long as you verify that they do not harbor hidden meanings. People around the world increasingly speak some English.
- Most acronyms or collections of letters and numbers are safe (IBM, WD40). But beware: common series of letters and numbers can translate into offensive slang.
Many companies now rely on linguistic checks by native speakers of several languages when naming new products or processes. It's an acknowledgment that we are crafting products for the world, not merely for the United States. It's a small price to pay to avoid embarrassment and liability abroad or within our borders among those who speak English as a second language.
Robert Sprung is the chairman of Harvard Translations (Cambridge, MA), a firm he founded 10 years ago. Two years ago he also began serving as editor of Language International. To contact Sprung, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.htrans.com.