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Branding: Always read the label - it may mean something completely different when translated

Pity the poor folk who invent product names; their lives are about to become very complicated

“Gosa Raps”, the name given to an Ikea pillow, sounds innocent enough. But put it through Google’s translate function, and in English it comes up with “Cuddle Rape”.

The translation quickly became an online news story and a hit on Reddit.com. Despite the fact that the error was an innocent one – raps, the Swedish for rapeseed, was incorrectly translated – the online quirk highlights the difficulty for the chain, which has more than 9,500 products in its catalogue, with different names for each, which are then sold across 298 stores across 26 countries.

The naming process is a serious business for Ikea. It started because the chain’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, didn’t like having to remember product numbers for everything, and is now run by a team in Sweden. Scandinavian girls’ names are chosen for textiles, boys’ for home chairs and stools, and other products are drawn from an array of different sources from Swedish lakes to Scandi-slang. According to the company, the search for inspiration involves going “through dictionaries, websites, crossword dictionaries, atlases, announcements in the births column, and place-name lists”. The product names must be between four and 10 letters long and checked so that they should “never be ‘bad language’ in any of the many languages spoken in the countries where Ikea has business”.

But sometimes things slip through the net. The children’s workbench “Fartfull” was met with giggles in the anglophone world, as was the desk aimed at the slightly older clientele called the “Jerker”. The Germans guffawed when the “Gutvik” bed came out as it sounded a bit like “good fuck”. Beds were an issue in Thailand, too, according to The Wall Street Journal, where the company hired translators, who picked up one named, “Redalen”, which in Thai “sounds uncomfortably close to getting to third base”.

The Ikea museum in Almhult in Sweden doesn’t sound like the most exciting day out, but it does house a cabinet displaying the “unfortunate” choices of names given to some products, such as Anis, Dick and Fanny – enough to keep the inner schoolboy amused all day.

It’s going to be harder to keep an eye on such things as last year the store announced plans to open between 20 and 25 new shops each year until 2020. While it (and likely other companies too) may be affected when EU Directive 1007/2011 comes into effect next year, which will require those selling clothes to the EU member states to translate their labels into the 23 languages spoken therein, running the risk of people being insulted when they check washing instructions.