Take a stroll around any major Chinese city and I guarantee it will not take long for you to spot a myriad of hilarious Chinese to English translations that only Master Yoda could understand. As a foreigner, I cannot help it but to wonder where the creativity for these translations come from. It is hard to imagine that a country that has plans to put a man on the moon, build a high-speed railway system that links Asia to Europe, is still falling short when it comes to producing simple signs in English. I know for a fact that the Chinese are a highly capable people, so where is the source of the problem?
The example of China’s directly and poorly translated signs illustrate how important it is to take cultural differences in consideration when translating terms from one language to another. Direct translation, as we will see, can often be misleading or end up in disaster. This holds especially true, when the languages in question present extremely different cultural roots.
More than many nations, China is a place where names are imbued with deep significance. Western companies looking to bring their products to China face a problem not unlike that of Chinese parents naming a baby boy: little Gang (“strong”) may be regarded quite differently than little Yun (“cloud”). Given that China’s market for consumer goods is growing by better than 13 percent annually — and luxury-goods sales by 25 percent — an off-key name could have serious financial consequences for any business trying to establish itself here.
The art of picking a brand name that resonates with Chinese consumers is no longer an art. It has become a sort of science, with consultants, computer programs and linguistic analyses to ensure that what tickles a Mandarin ear does not grate on a Cantonese one, for example. Needless to say that name picking is not only a science, it is becoming a damn lucrative one. Companies like Labbrand Consulting Company in Shanghai, have already made a business of finding names for Western companies entering the Chinese market.
To illustrate this matter in a more vivid way, let’s look at some of the names chosen by large Western enterprises like Coca Cola, Nike, BMW and so on.
The Chinese name for Coca-Cola, Kekoukele, not only sounds like Coke’s English name, but conveys its essence of taste and fun in a way that the original name could not hope to match. Another great example of brand naming mastery is the Chinese name chosen by the detergent brand, Tide. Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt”. In this particular case it is also important to note that the characters are important, since the same sound written differently could mean “too purple”.
Reebok, or Rui bu, which means “quick steps”. And, of course, Colgate — Gao lu jie — which translates into “revealing superior cleanliness”. Nike (NaiKe), which not only sounds like the original western name, but also means enduring and persevering. BMW (BaoMa, echoing the first two sounds of its English and German names) also seems to have hit the spot of Chinese ears.
It is important to realise that finding a good name involves more than just coming up with clever homonyms to the original English. If you go for phonetic sounds, everyone knows where you are from — you’re immediately identified as a foreign brand.
For some products, having a foreign-sounding name lends a “twist” that a true Chinese name would lack. Many upscale brands like Cadillac (KaDiLaKe), or Hilton (XiErDun), employ phonetic translations that mean nothing in Chinese. Rolls-Royce (Laosi-Laisi) includes two Chinese characters for “labor” and “plants” that more or less have become standard usage in foreign names — all to achieve a distinct foreign look and sound.
On the other hand, a genuine Chinese name can say things about a product that a mere collection of homonyms never could. Take Citibank (HuaQiYinHang), which literally means “star-spangled banner bank,”or Pentium (BenTeng), which means “galloping.”
If you take your product to the Chinese market, picking the right Mandarin brand name for it is crucial. The Chinese name of your product needs to resonate with Chinese consumers. An off-key could have serious financial consequences. According to a report in the New York Times, picking a brand name for China has become a sort of science. Like in every science, misuse might well lead to disaster as we will see in the examples ahead.
Microsoft’s Bing search engine is an example of branding that could have easily gone seriously wrong. In Chinese, the most common definitions of the character pronounced “bing” are “disease,” “defect” and “virus” — rather inauspicious for a computer product. Due to this, Microsoft had to change it’s name to, Bi Ying, which roughly means “responds without fail”.
The French carmaket Peugeot (BiaoZhi) has inspired many jokes, since it’s Chinese name sounds enough like the Chinese slang for “prostitute” (biaozi). In southern China, where the pronunciations are especially close, the brand has inspired dirty jokes.