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Egg on Face: McDonald’s Hmong Coffee Translation Fail
September 7, 2012 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on Egg on Face: McDonald’s Hmong Coffee Translation Fail

Coffee Gets You Up, Breakfast Gets You Going/ How can you argue with that? What if I say, “Yuavtxhawbpabraukojsawv yuavntxivzograukoj mus?” and put it up on a couple of billboards like McDonald’s in St. Paul? Doing that can start an argument.

Louis Henry, who posted the ads, owns eight McDonald’s restaurants around St. Paul. He says he hopes the billboards will attract Hmong customers by showing that he values their patronage. But apparently, that value wan’t quite enough to check the translation before publishing it in foot-high letters.

Bruce Thao says the Hmong phrase on McDonald’s billboards isn’t written the way people talk. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the Hmong as written was “weird.” Other Hmong speakers say the ad text is missing spaces between words, and doesn’t make sense as it’s written, according to local TV station KARE.

McDonald’s quickly apologized: “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.”

I think that’s a nice recovery. It’s not that surprising that the agency would experience Hmong-fail, since Hmong can get tricky in translation. Part of the challenge reflects Hmong’s long history of low prestige as a hillbilly tongue spoken in remote parts of Southeast Asia. Many speakers have learned the language by ear and are not up on formal grammar.

But any local outfit in Minneapolis should have a handle on Hmong, since the immigrant population is concentrated in the Twin Cities. But when you treat a language as an after thought, the situation can devolve rapidly. But McDonald’s will fix it right now, and be better off for their mistake, since they have engaged the Hmong community since the translation error made the local news.

There are about 200,000 Hmong speakers in the US out of 2.7 million worldwide, with many dialects. “Hmong Daw (also called White Miao or Hmong Der), Mong Njua (also called Blue or Green Miao or Mong Leng), and Dananshan (Standard Chinese Miao). Hmong Daw and Mong Njua are the two major dialects spoken by Hmong Americans,” according to Wikipedia.

There are orthography issues for a language mostly spoken and not so often written. The story goes that once upon a time the Hmong’s most treasured book was eaten by cows and rats, so the Hmong decided that “no text was equal to the task of representing a culture as rich as that of the Hmong,” according to Anne Fadiman. Foreign missionaries and bureaucrats didn’t buy that argument however, and the Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), developed in Laos in the early 1950s, is now the most widely used script for writing Hmong Daw and Mong Njua. Here’s a site dedicated to preserving Hmong through literacy. Now all that written Hmong can be stored on the Internet shelf the rats shouldn’t be able to get at it.

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