Egg on Face: McDonald’s Hmong Coffee Translation Fail

by Translation Guy on September 7, 2012

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.


  1. Jenks says:

    Do Hmong have a taste for bad coffee? My lap hasn’t been the same since that spill.

  2. Erica says:

    Thumb up!!!

  3. Terry Downey says:

    Good for a laugh, thanks for the post.

  4. Janet says:

    I’m not a Hmong speaker, but it looks wrong just at a glance. Whatever it may be, lack of spaces or what have you.

    • Ken says:

      Languages without spaces are like days without sunshine.

  5. How does one go about creating text for a language exclusively spoken and then get it accepted by the speakers?

  6. Darrell Yuen says:

    Cows and rats? Okay, that made me laugh, quite hard.

  7. Vetta says:

    How many Hmong speakers are in the Minni area? Because I doubt enough to cover the cost of this mistake and all it entails.

    • Ken says:

      I think around 100,000. One of us is going to have to google it to be sure though.

  8. What, they use google translate? Actually google probably would have done a better job.

  9. Silly McD’s, the cost of hiring a proper translator in the first place has to be cheaper than this debacle’s fallout.

  10. Tracey says:

    Doesn’t matter if they repost, damage done, everyone knows their idiots now.

  11. Seem to be running across more and more stories of big business making stupid mistakes like this, what the hell do they pay their marketing departments for?

  12. This is just ridiculous, how can you not check before you post the billboard.

  13. Raquel Crowe says:

    Never would have thought Minnesota was a Hmong hotspot.

  14. Jude says:

    Everyday there is something isn’t there. Smh.

    • Ken says:


  15. Well that’s a stupid and costly mistake.

  16. This is why EN 15038 says a revision of translation by at least one linguist other than the original translator is absolutely essential!

  17. url says:

    This week’s top spam:

    I like the idea of being you. People love to hear about you, your story, what’s going on for you, especially the bad. I guess misery loves company.

  18. Hey great blog but you really need to stop drinking tap water, there is Sodium Fluoride (Rat Poison) in it

    • Ken says:

      I think that’s the rats in my neighborhood are drinking, and they’re doing quite well.

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