What’s in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet.
Juliet’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet is often invoked to suggest that at the end of the day, names don’t really matter. Of course, at the end of the play , Juliet and Romeo both died tragically, so I’m not sure we should be taking advice from either of them. I guess names really do matter.
That’s certainly true in China, and coming up with a Chinese name for your company can be one of the toughest tasks a tech firm faces when it’s time to localize. But how can you translate your brand into a language and culture that’s so different? If you transliterate (imitate the sounds of your name), you could end up with characters that sound like your brand but mean something awful. And if you try to translate directly, you could end up with a name that’s culturally incomprehensible or unlikely to be associated with your brand.
If you don’t translate at all? Well, that can come with problems of its own. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Chinese name: Guge 谷歌
Why it’s bad: While Guge does sound vaguely like Google, the characters’ meanings don’t work well. Literally, the name means something like “harvesting song” or “grain song,” and it sounds more like the name of a folk tune than the name of a giant search company. It certainly doesn’t hold up well in comparison to Baidu, whose name is a clever reference to a piece of ancient Chinese poetry. In fact, when the Guge name was first announced, some Chinese internet users actually protested , fearing that the name would harm Google’s “cool factor” in China.
Chinese name: Biying 必应
Why it’s bad: Bing’s official Chinese name, biying , actually isn’t bad: it means “must respond” and it’s a pretty clever name for a search engine. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the search engine’s Chinese URL still uses the “Bing” branding and that reads like bing 病, the Chinese word for disease. In a culture that values the auspicious, it’s one of the least auspicious names one could have.
Chinese name: Baisimai 百思买
Why it’s bad: The American electronics retailer and ecommerce store did pick a name that sounds like “Best Buy,” but the meaning isn’t quite there. Baisimai could be translated as “think it over 100 times before buying,” which certainly isn’t the message any retailer or etailer wants to be sending to consumers.
Best Buy shuts its Chinese stores in 2011.
Chinese name: No official Chinese name
Why it’s bad: Without an official Chinese name, Facebook gets called a lot of things. But one of the easiest ways to transliterate the sounds of the English word is Feisibuke . The only problem? That means “must die/death is inevitable.” Facebook also gets called Lianpu , which is a more literal translation of the words “face” and “book”, but at this point the Feisibuke moniker has been around and amusing people for long enough that it’s not likely to disappear even if Facebook does enter China with a better official Chinese name.
Of course, not all Chinese brand translations are bad. I don’t know of any tech firms that have translated their name quite as well as Coca-Cola , whose Chinese name sounds like “Coca-Cola” and means delicious and fun. But plenty have done a good job.
Chinese name: Tuite 推特
Why it’s better: It sounds a lot like “Twitter,” which makes it easy to remember for those who are already familiar with the English-language branding. But the literal meaning checks out too; tui means push out and te means special or unique, so Tuite makes Twitter sound like a place where you can push out unique content. Which, of course, is exactly what it is.
Chinese name: Yahu 雅虎
Why it’s better: Yahu is a near-perfect sound-alike for Yahoo, which is always a good thing for brands that already have a lot of English-language name recognition. But it also has the literal meaning of “elegant tiger.” Granted, “elegant tiger” doesn’t really tell you anything about Yahoo’s business, but it still sounds damn cool.
Chinese name: Huipu 惠普
Why it’s better: The American computer brand may not have the sex appeal of Apple, but it does have a Chinese name that includes both H and P while carrying an auspicious meaning. Hui means benefit or favor, and pu means universal or everywhere, so Huipu suggests a product that is full of benefits.
Chinese name: Weiruan 微软
Why it’s better: It may not sound anything like Microsoft, but at least it makes sense. With Weiruan, Microsoft went for a literal translation: wei means micro and ruan means soft. Translating literally is full of potential pitfalls, because one word in that has multiple meanings in English might be translatable into several different words in Chinese, or vice versa. But this one worked out well; it’s the right “micro” and the right “soft” and Microsoft is in the clear.
Chinese name: Benteng 奔腾
Why it’s better: Intel may have mostly abandoned the Pentium branding at this point, but it’s a shame because the Chinese translation worked really well. Benteng sounds vaguely similar to Pentium, and the literal meaning is “galloping” or “surging forward” – it’s exactly the kind of speed-related term you’d want to associate with your CPU line.
So how can you come up with the perfect Chinese branding? That’ll be the subject of another post. But if you’ve got any interesting Chinese brand translation stories, please feel free to share them in the comments.