On the Difficulty of Translating Brand Names

When preparing their products for export to foreign markets, international companies that do not utilize professional translation may find that they are losing business due to linguistic mishaps. It is the translator’s job to help brands avoid these situations when translating brand names.

For example, a Soviet car manufacturer, AvtoVAZ, sold models in the domestic market under the “Zhiguli” name, but had to change its name to “Lada” because the original name sounded like “gigolo” to Western Europeans. (A “lada” is a small traditional Russian ship on the Volga River, which flows near the construction plant.)

There’s also the more recent example of Blédina, the French baby food brand. While its name originated from “Blé,” meaning “wheat” in English, it sounds like a female insult to Russians. As a result, their cute little jars failed to compete with the German brand HIPP.

I’ve dealt with cross-cultural dilemmas, too. Several years ago, a French cosmetics company created a new line of makeup removers and cleansers. Product managers spent a lot of time searching for a concise name for the product line. Finally, the long-awaited name “Dermo Ecolia” was proudly announced, reflecting a choice of the optimal cleanser (dermo=skin, écolia=school).

Everyone applauded except for the employees of the Russian marketing department. Russian speakers will immediately be put off by this name, as dermo in Russian sounds like the word for sh*t!

What was I supposed to do? Leave it as in French? Impossible. Translating the name as “School of Skin” or something to that effect wouldn’t have been any better.

After weighing multiple unconvincing options and having passionate debates with the management (you maybe know how emotional the French are, even at work!), we settled on a compromise. The word dermo was replaced by derma (a instead of o) and we left the product name in French without translation into Russian (for additional emphasis on its being “Made in France”). The products were finally launched as “Derma Ecolia Milky Make-Up Remover” and “Derma Ecolia Morning Beauty Emulsion.”

The difficulty for me was not only being stuck without a decent equivalent but also the need to convince managers to reconsider the name for the sake of just one local market. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, as these cleansers have since become bestsellers.

About Olga Talalaeva

I am a native Russian translator living in France. I have a degree in linguistics and a Master’s in Business Administration. I translate primarily in the areas of business and marketing documents, as well as luxury brands.