When A Language Error Becomes Brand-damaging

Last Friday, as I walked into H&M in the City (London) during my lunch break, I am immediately appealed by the new outfit of the staff: white T-shirts with multilingual greetings in bright colours. After trying a few “party” clothes, my break is almost over so I decide to head to the checkout and take a closer look at the cashier T-shirt to spot the greetings I already know in other languages.
After checking the French, Spanish and Dutch translations, my attention is dragged to what is supposed to say “hello” in Arabic. Beloved Arabic friends, I am unable to show you any picture, but here is what appeared on the T-shirt:

ر ي خ ل ا ح ا ب ص

You don’t need to know Arabic to see that something is wrong here. First, the letters are not linked to one another, which doesn’t make sense as Arabic is not a language which gives you the option to use cursive or block letters. With a few exceptions, all letters are joined up within a word. Second, for those who have basics in that language, you can notice that the letters have been inverted and if you read it from left to right instead of right to left, it indeed says “hello” – or more precisely “good morning” – in Arabic.

Now, this doesn’t mean the translator did a bad job. Actually, it has probably nothing to do with the linguist!

The reason why the greeting is wrong is because the typesetter probably used the standard Western version of Adobe InDesign instead of the Middle Eastern version.

And this error could have been avoided very easily:

  • by asking the translator to double check the T-shirt once it has been typset
  • by asking the translation agency/the translator to also do the typesetting as they have the right software

And they are not the only ones (Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in London, several ATM’s…)

I can only see two reasons why this error hasn’t been spotted:

  • They wanted to save money on the design and thought it would be cheaper to ask their in-house designer to deal with it. That person didn’t know anything about languages and found the T-shirt quite cool !
  • They outsourced the typsetting to a linguist or an agency that deals wtih several languages but not Arabic so they didn’t notice there was something wrong.

From my experience, I would say there is 90% chance the first reason is what happened with the store. But when you think about it, why taking the risk of damaging your brand for something that would have cost less than £100? Particularly when you are one of the biggest retail store in Europe.

Bye for now,


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