I number of us had engaged in a similar discussion back in May 2002 on Global Interact Network (GINLIST – a now defunct discussion list). There were several translation examples that we discussed as urban legends; the Chevy Nova example, the Coca-Cola being translated into Chinese as "bite the wax tadpole", and Pepsi’s campaign in Taiwan being translated as "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead" as well as others.
A few of us tried to track the citations in the textbooks to their original sources and quickly went nowhere. At the end, we found several books that simply cited each other or mentioning these cases as anecdotes without any credible references. The earliest mention of the Chevy Nova ‘blunder’ we could find was a WSJ article from January 13, 1977 written by a staff reporter discussing the business of technical translation. The conclusion of the discussion was that these are all urban legends that have been victims of ‘consensual validation’. Once a first few cites came up, lazy writers who only do cursory research use those citations as validation of the statement as a fact and publish them. Additional such publications only strengthen the false validation process.
What’s so surprising is that the Snopes article was already up online in 2002, so the case has been researched and classified as urban legend for at least a decade. Yet it continues to be mentioned frequently as a brand blunder.
Tunga Kiyak, Ph.D.
Academy of International Business (AIB)
Finally someone writes about this myth! I have been saying the same for a long time to my students in International Business and Cross-Cultural Management because all textbooks use that as an example of blunders in language, and the Nova thing became a classic which no one had questioned before. I lived in Venezuela during the introduction of the Chevy Nova and it was a very well accepted car in that market as mentioned in your e-mail. I have said to my students and to anyone else willing to listen that in Spanish speaking countries “nova” will be associated more with the word “nuevo” (which means new), because the Latin root of “Nuevo” is pretty close to “Nova.”
Thanks for sharing!
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A False Claim: The Chevrolet Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because its name translates as "doesn't go" in Spanish.
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