If you have ever taken an international marketing or international business class, it is not unlikely that you’ve heard how Chevrolet blundered in Latin America because of poor translation. Chances are, if you are an instructor who teaches these classes, you will have told this story to your students. For those of you, who don’t know: as the story goes, a particular Chevrolet model, the Nova, supposedly did poorly in Spanish-speaking markets in Latin America, most notably in Mexico and in Venezuela in the 1970s. As can be read in many widely distributed international business textbooks the reasons seems to have been that No-va roughly translates into “doesn’t go” (i.e. “doesn’t drive”) which, of course, can’t be a very appealing name to buyers of new cars. Well, unfortunately, none of this is true, or at least it is highly speculative and gravely inaccurate. As a scholarly colleague of mine, Romie Litrell of AUT in Auckland, New Zealand has recently pointed out on a discussion listserv of international business scholars, there is no evidence whatsoever that there ever was such a marketing fiasco. Neither is there such a linear relationship between “no-va” and the assumption that a car doesn’t function in any variation of the Spanish language, nor is there any hard evidence of poor sales. Also, for the longest time, there was a Mexican gasoline brand called “Nova” that seems to have done pretty well with the same name. To say the best, it is hugely embarrassing that cohorts of publishers, legions of highly respected authors and tens of thousands of instructors worldwide never seem to have questioned this urban myth. Question is, how many more are there out there that haven’t been debunked yet? The one thing that bothers me even more is the fact that even some of the most respected authors and instructors rarely go beyond such simplistic examples when they teach about cultural differences. There’s certainly more to be said about the complexity of cross-border business than to tell jokes and have a good laugh about ignorant multinationals that don’t even get their translations right. Dig deeper, colleagues! Dig deeper!
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