Reuters just released a news item with the title “‘Masturbation’ car to get new name.” It tells us that General Motors will rename its Buick LaCrosse in Canada because the name for the car is slang for masturbation in Quebec. The story concludes by referring to the widely used urban legend of the Chevy Nova:
“The mix-up is reminiscent of another GM vehicle with an unfortunate name. In the 1970s, GM exported its Chevrolet Nova to Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, only to be told that Nova translated into ‘doesn’t go’.”
There is no translators conference where not at least one speaker rolls out the Chevy Nova story to illustrate what can happen when due research is missing in naming products. Translators include it in their brochures to impress upon prospective clients how aware they are of this problem and that they will take better care.
Alas, it seems that the Nova debacle is nothing but an urban legend.
Snopes.com, which lists and describes such legends, says about the Nova story: “This anecdote is frequently used to illustrate the perils of failing to do adequate preparation and research before introducing a product into the international marketplace. It’s a wicked irony, then, that the people who use this example are engaging in the very thing they’re decrying, because a little preparation and research would have informed them that it isn’t true.”
And further down: “Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word ‘nova’ as equivalent to the phrase ‘no va’ and think ‘Hey, this car doesn’t go!’ is akin to assuming that English speakers would spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn’t include a table.”
So is this Buick story another legend in the making? We will see, but interestingly, it deals with a U.S. car to be sold in Canada while originating in Makuhari, the exhibition town on the shore of Tokyo Bay.