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10 December 2013

How Lufsig the cuddly wolf became a Hong Kong protest symbol

A short lesson in the art of mistranslating names into Chinese.

By Sophie McBain

The stuffed toy wolf called Lufsig sold by Ikea was simply intended as a children’s toy – but since two protesters threw the toy at Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, it has become a protest symbol. Not only is Leung nicknamed the wolf, because of his perceived cunning, but as the South China Morning Post politely explains, its Chinese translation is a homonym for “an obscene three-word phrase in Cantonese associated with the female genitalia”.

“I was amazed by the serendipity of it all. It seemed like Lufsig was meant to be used as a tool of protest against Leung,” Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University in Hong Kong wrote in the Huffington Post. Ikea has now run out of stock for Lufsig – although when I checked eBay this lunchtime you could still buy him for around $20 online. The cuddly wolf also has over 45,000 likes on his newly created Facebook page.

It’s rare for Western brands’ mistranslations to work out so neatly. When Coca-Cola was first launched in China the brand name first read as “Kekoukela” which means “bite the wax tadpole”, or “female horse stuffed with wax” . Eventually it settled on koukou kole, which translates as “happiness in the mouth”.  KFC also made a mistake translating “finger-licking good” into Chinese – it briefly carried the slogan “eat your fingers off”. And the “come alive with the Pepsi Generation” was interpreted by some to mean “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Mercedes Benz inititially launched in China as “Bensi” until someone pointed out this meant “rush to die”. It’s now Benchi, which means to rush as though you are flying.

Mistranslations rarely work out so well for a brand as it has for Ikea’s Lufsig, although Leung will not be pleased.