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Was Amazon’s Giant Translation Gaffe a Marketing Ploy?

Localization

“It felt like a huge prank,” said translation industry business consultant Anne-Marie Colliander Lind in a conversation about Amazon’s botched launch of amazon.se in Sweden last week.

Amazon launched its amazon.se platform in Sweden last week, and the transition into the new market did not go unnoticed. On day one, users were reporting en masse blatant and quite shocking errors in much of the Swedish translation. We wanted to better understand what went wrong, so we turned to localization expert and consultant and native Swede Anne-Marie Colliander Lind to glean some insight about how Amazon allowed these shocking gaffes to define its first impression in Sweden.

Describing her initial reaction to the news, Lind said, “It felt like a huge prank.” Lind’s surprise came from more than just the level of vulgarity she witnessed. Beyond noting the flag blunder — Amazon used Argentina’s flag in place of Sweden’s — she found the ubiquity of certain errors particularly disconcerting.

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Lind took us through a few examples and explained why they appeared so flagrant. Some were relatively innocuous. Star Wars products that featured the Death Star translated it as Dödlig Stjärna, or dead star. The trunks in swimming trunks turned into Bagageutrymme, meaning trunk (of a car).

Some were a bit more risqué.

The Swedish kuk, for example, is equivalent to the English noun cock. From an English perspective, we knew the double meaning of this word can refer to both rooster, and, well, yeah. In Swedish, on the other hand, kuk is employed solely as a vulgarity, meaning cock and dick would both translate to kuk, but rooster would not.

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For intentionally vulgar products — like the pair of boxer shorts with a rooster printed near the phrase “Suck my Cock!” — the pun, then, would not track, but the juvenile denotation would. Still, as we scrolled on, kuk continued to show up in places where the translation clearly should have been tupp, the Swedish word for rooster. Even more, it began showing up in products devoid of any rooster or phallus-related content: skateboards, fishing tackle. Our minds wandered.

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The fishing lure and skateboard in this picture both use forms of the Swedish word kuk, which translates to a phallus-related vulgarity.

Lind noticed verbal conjugations of kuk as kukad and kukande, which as verbs would mean, essentially, to dick something. We conjectured the source translation might, possibly, have been from the English verb form of cock: to set something in place, like a skateboard wheel or a fishing lure. So perhaps the machine translation recognized that the word was now used as a verb, but still could not determine a better equivalent than an unrelated vulgarity?

It seemed possible that anywhere the English letters c-o-c-k would have appeared — even for words unequivocally referring to something else — the Swedish resorted to the vulgar translation.

Pung, or scrotum, is used here to describe a bra.

Similar tendencies arose with the Swedish word for rape, Våldtäkt, which described not just rapeseed oil products, but also descriptions for shower curtains, cell phone covers, and sexual assault goal-keeper shirts. Pung, referring to the scrotum, was used to describe bras and lingerie. Feline-related material became pussy. It all seemed, to Lind, too blatant to just be a mistake with the machine translation.

“These mistakes don’t resonate with machine translation,” she said, adding that even Google Translate would have picked up on such errors. Furthermore, Amazon has translation standards in place that require vendors provide translations for product descriptions and customer support. Even with the reliance on individual vendors, Amazon would still have a filtration process for vulgar content. Furthermore, trade names, which are generally marked as non-translatable, were included in the numerous gaffes.

Amazon released a statement of thanks to the community for pointing out the gaffes, promising improvements as they continue to receive feedback, but did little to clarify the source of the errors or what it would do to prevent such a disaster in future launches. Amazon will act on any flagged material by lowering the rank of products with poor translation quality. But simply removing or lowering the rank of these products seems more in line with sweeping the issue under the rug than determining what caused the disaster in the first place.

Lind noted that the company’s own localization processes seemed to be running smoothly, including delivery mechanisms and payment information, highlighting that Amazon would hire its own localization team for essential site functions. Clearly, Amazon has shown a commitment to the smooth exchange of money and goods, but all while allowing some terrible translations to slip into the public sphere.

We discussed what this all means for Amazon, and whether the company can assimilate to the Swedish market in a meaningful way moving forward. Lind said that while she expects the dust to settle around Amazon as it makes fixes to the site, she does not expect it will take to the Swedish market as significantly as it has in other European markets. With Sweden’s strong ecommerce industry — including retail giant IKEA — Swedish consumers already have access to quality products over the internet. Nevertheless, Amazon will try to find ways to become the premier ecommerce site wherever it goes.

Which brings us back to the translation issue. As a multi-national company, Amazon knows the risks and considerations of launching in a new country. So could this have been a large-scale prank that the company employed as a marketing scheme? After seeing IKEA successfully recover from its own translation gaffe back in August, perhaps Amazon is following suit.

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