The Curious Case of Taco Bell’s Translation Trouble

Posted by John Sholl

Presenting Taco Bell’s Localization Problems in Japan; What Happened and What Can We Learn from It?


A wildly successful company with a history of smart business moves makes the decision to reach out to an international market and ends up completely butchering the translation, and as a result the digital community pounces on the accident like a fresh meal. It’s something that’s become surprisingly common, and, even more surprisingly, it often involves companies with a history of smart decision-making. KFC did it when their slogan, “Finger-lickin’ good,” was translated to “We’ll eat your fingers off” in Chinese. Coors stepped it up a notch when their “Turn it loose” slogan translated into “Suffer from diarrhea” in Spanish.

Now it’s Taco Bell who’s taken a translation stumble, and they may have set the bar even (higher?) in their attempt to translate their English website into Japanese. The site ended up translating “Cheesy Chips,” “Cheesy Fries,” and “Crunch-Wrap Supreme,” into “Low Quality or Cheap-Looking chips,” “Low-Quality Fleece,” and “Supreme Court Beef,” while managing to butcher some other slogans and brand content along the way. The site was taken down relatively quickly, but not before Japanese customers took screen shots and had some fun with the fast-food restaurant’s misfortune.

Not counting the obvious use of a very low quality machine translation engine, Taco Bell made three costly mistakes in their localization efforts which ended up causing them quite the embarrassment…

First, they used machine translation while dealing with highly visible, customer-facing content

For websites that are designed for an entire locale to engage and interact with, a company should always make sure their content has been in the hands of an experienced, in-country, industry-specific, and most importantly, human translator. This not only ensures that there will be no blatant mistranslations, but also that all content will be translated with culture, context, and perception in mind.

Second, they failed to use transcreation while translating powerful brand elements into a foreign market

What do you do when need to translate advertising, taglines and messaging, or content with humor or cultural references? These content types all rely on a connection with the target market, and to make sure that a memorable connection is forged, an expanding company would be wise to use transcreation.

Linguistically speaking, translators assigned to transcreation services are equally as qualified as the rest of any professional translator. On top of this, however, they are experts in marketing, creative copywriting, and design. They understand the importance of creative value, and are experienced with translating content types associated with it. This makes transcreation essential for the success of certain content types.

And Third: Proxy, Proxy, Proxy

When they weren’t chiming in with jokes and jabs towards the mistranslations on the website—all somewhat well deserved—Japanese consumers had some genuine complaints about the way the site functioned, and how that functionality communicated the message that Taco Bell clearly wasn’t placing much value on Japanese culture.

The Japanese site was available through a portal on the English site—visible as a small Japanese flag at the top. If the Japanese customer was able to successfully navigate to this flag, clicking on merely sent the site through machine translation, providing an instant, word-for-word translation of whatever was on the English page. This is, clearly, a very ineffective solution to website translation.

The latest and most effective solution for global website translation is translation proxy. Translation proxy utilizes a main page (American English, in the case of Taco Bell) through which all updates are applied. This main site is then automatically crawled for changes and updates, which are then sent to a professional translator designated for each target language, thereby saving time while multiplying quality exponentially.

Taco Bell has since created a proper Japanese site for their new customers to read and engage with, and their future in Japan is far from doomed. But still, these three lessons remain highly relevant for any company looking to localize their website into new markets.

Taco Bell Night” by Anthony92931 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.