McDonald's Learns It Shouldn't Trust Free Web Translators When It Comes To Its Billboards

So far as the needs of an average person who say, needs an approximate translation of a YouTube video summary that’s in another language, turning to the free Internet tools is just fine and dandy. But McDonald’s is learning the hard way that it maybe should’ve coughed up the dough to hire a real professional after biffing two billboards aimed at the Hmong population in St. Paul, Minn.

McD’s says it was just trying to do something special for its Hmong customers when it attempted to translate the slogan: “Coffee gets you up, breakfast gets you going.”

That effort isn’t going over well with members of the Hmong community who say it wasn’t written the way anyone actually speaks in the their language — apparently the billboards are missing spaces between words and the whole thing is just a garbled mishmash of nonsense that doesn’t mean a darn thing, reports CBS Minnesota.

The chain is apologizing now and stressing that it didn’t mean to offend anyone and will work on correcting the billboards before they go up again next week. Here’s where the professional translator would come in handy, McD’s. Or just ask someone who actually speaks the language, perhaps.

McDonald’s released this statement:

“We strive to reach our guests in relevant ways including the use of in-language messaging. While it was our intention to create a special message for our Hmong population in Minnesota, we now realize that an error was made in the translation of ‘Coffee Gets You Up, Breakfast Gets You Going.’ It was not our intention to offend anyone and we apologize for the error. We are working with our local advertising agency to correct these billboards and will re-post next week.”

McD’s Apologizes Over Hmong Billboards [CBS Minnesota]


Edit Your Comment

  1. ironflange says:

    Could have been worse, it might have wound up saying “Our food will kill you” or something.

  2. SharkD says:

    Hvwg wg kvm W aoys am ckb hfobgzohwcbg oh vcas. (Bc, hvwg wgb’h Vacbu.)

  3. kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

    “Or just ask someone who actually speaks the language, perhaps”

    Yeah … you’d think that could have made an effort to reach out to at least one person in the group they are trying to target.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      This is a corporation. They spend millions of dollars to have someone else talk to the commoners. Mainly, commoners they hire to at the front counter.

      The research, they suppose, they infer, and they estimate. But they will damned if they have to actually TALK to these people!

      • Barry Bunch O'Krunch says:

        In all fairness, I see mom & pop Chinese restaurants doing stuff like this all the time, too. Before you have a sign built, an awning installed, menus printed, ads placed… just take ten seconds to ask a native-speaker, “Does the name ‘Happy New Number 1’ make any sense?”

  4. Telekinesis123 says:

    I’m sure they could have asked someone in the community to translate this sentence for them for even $50 and they would be glad to do it. Doesn’t seem too tough.

  5. Grasshopper says:

    I heard a story but cannot confirms it’s veracity: A sign-making company in the United Kingdom needed to make a Welsh roadsign. They emailed the necessary English phrase to their translator and received the expected response, which was added to the dual language sign.

    After installing the sign, Welsh-speaking passers-by informed the company that the Welsh text on the sign read “I am out of the office until Monday and will respond upon my return”.

  6. Abradax says:

    Mcdonalds doesn’t have the money to seek a native language speaker.
    Google FTW.

  7. The Beer Baron says:

    Ph’nglui Mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

  8. axhandler1 says:

    Ok, so McDonalds tried to reach out to a specific language group, used an internet translator for the sign, and goofed. Certainly nothing to get upset over. McDonalds now looks foolish and will probably make the effort to get a real translator next time. I don’t feel that they need to apologize for anything though.

  9. techstar25 says:

    Ad Exec 1: “We need to create a billboard for the Hmong population in St. Paul, Minn. ”
    Ad Exec 2: “Where the hell are we going to find a Hmong to translate for us?”

    It sounds like something out of a “Naked Gun” movie.

  10. cthulhu says:

    They would carry her ulnagr Yuggoth Farnomi ilyaa…

  11. Lucky225 says:

    Perhaps it’s just me, but if you don’t speak the language, and your employees at that location also don’t speak the language, why are you targeting people that don’t speak your language to come into your establishment by posting ads you think are in their language? Even if McD got the translation right, when someone that comes in that speaks hmong wants to order something, the menu wouldn’t be in their language, and if it was, the cashier wouldn’t understand a damn thing they’re trying to order. Why would you intentionally target a community that would just cause headaches for both you and the customer?

    • lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

      And I’ll go a little further, and probably take some flack for this: maybe, just maybe the Hmong people who moved here, to a mostly English speaking country, might be making an effort to learn a little English, and by this time would certainly recognize the Golden Arches logo and know it’s a fast food joint. Why put up a billboard just in this language that no one else can read either? This makes no sense to me.

    • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

      I’m not sure that you have to very fluent in English to be able to order at McDonalds. They have several menu items that have pictures, with numbers next to them. Even if someone doesn’t know the English words for the number (and I’d guess this is probably one of the first bits of English people learn), you could probably point to the board and hold up one finger and the cashier could probably figure out that you want a Big Mac. You might need to learn “combo” and “just the sandwich”, but I’m guessing most people are quite capable of picking up these few words.

  12. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    As a Minnesotan, who was transplanted here ~15 years ago, I wondered what the deal was with all the Hmong around the Twin Cities – an ethnic group I’d never heard of before.

    What I was told was that the Hmong are a “countryless” people who were allies of the US during the Korean and/or Vietnam war, and did all kinds of stuff for the US that the crackers couldn’t have managed on their own.

    After the war, the Hmong found themselves persona non grata amongst essentially all involved native sides, and started immigrating to the US.

    …and for whatever reason, picked the Twin Cities as the spot they wanted to move to.

    That’s all I know. Feel free to confirm/deny.

    Nice enough group of people as far as I can tell, although I am led to believe they feel somewhat ostracized by the local community to some degree. Hence, it might make perfect sense for McD’s to try to reach out to them and inform them that McD’s would be happy to have Hmong customers. As others have pointed out, though, prolly would have been worth the labor cost to have an actual Hmong speaker do their translation.

    …oh, and for the record, Hmong is pronounced “mung.”

    • Velvet Jones says:

      I don’t think they “picked” the twin cities. When refugees enter the US, the Federal government assigns them a location and they often have little choice where to go. For some reason the government has chosen the Twin cities and to a lesser extent Fargo, ND as one of those dumping grounds. There are also a large number of Somalis there as well. Still, most Hmong have been here for a generation or more, I’d be surprised if any of them don’t speak at least some English.

    • Chuft-Captain says:

      I knew the name of the people sounded familiar – the family of neighbors that is pivotal in Gran Torino (excellent movie, not at ALL what the trailers tried to make it look like) was Hmong.

    • Invader Zim says:

      Thanks for sharing that. It is interesting to know.

    • ChuckECheese says:

      Minnesota Nice is a lie!!

  13. DaveInIT says:

    Mmmmm….yuavtxhawbpabraukojsawv yuavntxivzograukoj mus … (drool)

  14. shepd says:

    I’m not defending McDonald’s, but I would say with a worldwide total population of about 5 million (of which 260k live in the USA, or 1 in about 1200 Americans, almost all of whom inhabit just 3 US states) it may not be so easy to employ an hmong translator.

    Of course, at the same time, I wouldn’t bother using an online translator for anything serious, and I’m amazed any company with an employee count greater than room temperature wouldn’t know this. McDonald’s would have been best to just run a want AD for a proper translator and waited until they finally got one to create the sign.

    • YouDidWhatNow? says:

      Ummm…I could drive into certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, get out of the truck, ask any random passerby to translate something into Hmong for me for $5, and be on my way.

      …the density of Hmong, of course, being why McD’s was trying to put up advertising in Hmong in the first place.

      • shepd says:

        Of course, you’re right, but what’s to bet the advertising department isn’t in the Twin Cities, but rather a part of the US that has almost zero hmong population and is 1000+ miles away?

        It doesn’t excuse them from looking, and it doesn’t excuse the stupid decision made, but it does provide a reason for the error. :)

        • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

          It took me 10 seconds to find an organization in the Twin Cities that serves the Hmong community ( I’m sure there are other such organizations. One of the ESL instructors could surely translate a few sentences.

          Surely the McD advertising folks could have sent an email to the executive director. asking for assistance?

          There were multiple easy solutions to this problem.

  15. Oh_No84 says:

    #1 what the hell is hmong?
    #2 so if you write poorly in english its fine, if you write poorly in something called hmong then you are offensive??? I dont get it.

    • RandomHookup says:

      #1 — I’m sure Wikipedia can help you with that.

      #2 — If I criticize poorly written/ungrammatical/badly punctuated English (such as your improper use of capitals & bad punctuation), I am shouted down as a “grammar Nazi”.

      BTW, the Hmong “translation” was complete nonsense, so it makes absolute sense to criticize McDonald’s for a really bad effort. We also make fun of poor use of English on this board.

      • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

        Right. Nonsense =/= poor writing.

        Poor writing: McDonalds – it’s where you should eat your lunch at!

        Nonsense (with missing spaces): McDonaldscarsquare donkeyfarts lunchhisusanlibraryhazard.

        I wouldn’t say the nonsense is offensive. it’s just bizarre.

    • YouDidWhatNow? says:

      #1 – Answered that above myself. Also, Google is your friend. Well, unless you live in China…

      #2 – No, it’s still pretty offensive when Americans are too stupid/lazy to use the English language correctly. But since we’re all supposed to be OK with sub-par performance around here, it tends to slide more.

  16. fleef says:

    I AM SO OFFENDED. I demand a large lawsuit payout, and that McDonald’s people all take a diversity class.

  17. champacs says:

    Actually on Proz (the web’s largest internet site for translators) there are 37 English to Hmong translators registered just in the US!
    Maybe they were all unavailable the day Macdonalds needed them …

  18. HealingTek says:

    As soon as I saw the slogan I assumed it had been mistranslated to “Our coffee gives you an erection”. If it wasn’t for the gutter, my mind would be homeless.

  19. kc2idf says:

    Last week, I needed the word “no” translated into Russian. I know how to pronounce it (“nyet”) but not how to spell it (no familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet, really).

    Bing translate, which has taken the place of the formerly fairly-effective Babelfish, came up with “LOL”. No, I’m not kidding. It correctly translated “Yes” as “Да” but “No” came out as “LOL,” latin letters and everything.

    Meanwhile, Google translate gave me the correct answer of “Нет.”

    Beware the automated translator.

  20. samonela says:

    This has to be Hmong the best stories of the day!