As anyone who has ever shopped at IKEA knows, one of the chain’s trademarks is naming it various home furnishing products with Scandinavian names. In many countries, IKEA has had no problem simply using these brand names, despite the fact that they may be unpronounceable to foreigners. It is a part of the IKEA experience. But, like every other company, IKEA has to be careful of how its brand names will be received in different languages.
We recently wrote about the new Kraft brand name “Mondelez” that turned out to be close to an off color word in Russian. Well the Wall Street Journal recently reported that some IKEA brand names, if pronounced correctly in Swedish, can raise eyebrows when spoken in Thai. “Besides the Redalen bed [which sounds close to a Thai word for getting to third base], there is the very nice Jättebra plant pot, which can sound in part like a crude Thai term for sex.”
In order to avoid problems, IKEA worked with a team of Thai translators who spent four years on rendering the names in the Thai alphabet prior to the launch of the IKEA store in Bangkok. The translators learned the proper pronunciations of the brands and then transliterated them, trying to keep as close as possible to the originals but sometimes slightly changing a sound in order to avoid unfortunate associations. In the case of Thailand, the care is as much a function of culture as of language, because the Thai culture is very conservative, making it more likely that people will take offense, rather than laughing off the associations as might happen in other countries.
IKEA’s peculiar naming system presents an extreme case, but protecting brand identity is one reason that good professional translators are important for any company doing business in other countries and cultures.