The Fine Chinese Art of Global Brand Translation
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The Fine Chinese Art of Global Brand Translation

The Fine Chinese Art of Global Brand Translation

Coca Cola in ChinaIn one sense, perhaps the most important sense, a brand is a promise. Think of some top brands and you immediately know what they promise: McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Budweiser, Ford, Apple, MetLife.

You know what you’re going to get with a well-branded product or service.

– Lois Geller, Forbes, May 2012

As Forbes Magazine knows all too well, a brand name may be one of the most important elements of marketing. Once developed, it becomes more than a simple name, it becomes a company’s calling card: on meaning, status, industry expertise, market position, and so much more.

Can Western businesses venturing into the Chinese market translate all of the power and consumer expectation of their brands into Chinese characters?

International Brands, Chinese Versions

Localizing brand names into Chinese is never easy work. One part of this, of course, is the difference between the two writing systems: Latin letters and Chinese characters. The other is the marketing effect, with all of a brand’s special requirements and brand “baggage.”

A brand name is a noun. To translate a noun from English to Chinese, there are basically two methods: to translate according to the pronunciation (using Chinese characters) or to translate according to meaning (to convey the marketing effect).

If using just one of these methods would suffice, it would not be a difficult task. However, that cannot be done. If translated for pronunciation, the brand name would sound the same but the Chinese would be totally meaningless. It would only be recognized as a foreign name. If translated for meaning, the Chinese word for the brand would be totally different (disconnected) from the English name. Again, it would be “meaningless” for the brand.

Luckily, Chinese translators work out solutions for many brands. And sometimes the result sounds quite interesting.

Translation-by-Pronunciation Method

To translate the brand name directly according to the pronunciation is, in fact, the easiest and safest way. It helps you to remember the English name. For famous companies or products for certain professional industries, experts, or buyers of luxury goods, this works very well. Sometimes, it even builds a feeling of professional or mysterious.

Take for example Caterpillar, an American corporation that, among other things, designs, manufactures, markets, and sells machinery and engines worldwide. Its four Chinese characters are pronounced as “Car, Te, Pi, Le”. It has no meaning beyond “some foreign name Car, Te, Pi, Le.” Of course, Caterpillar does not expect a teenager or a housewife to know them. However, for the people who work in the construction or milling industry, if somebody hears “Car, Te, Pi, Le” and does not know what it means, it would be no different than announcing himself as a layman.
Caterpillar
Almost all luxury brands translate their Chinese names in this way. It’s a statement: they only sell goods to the people who know. The luxury industry prides itself in its exclusivity, in being “original.” Conveying this feeling can also be read in its brand translation.

Translation-by-Meaning Method

If every brand translation could be done in this way, it would be meaningless for us to talk about this topic here. But for the companies that focus on “fast-moving” consumer goods, there’s considerably more product competition. They have a different advertising approach: the more population knows their brand, the more people will buy their products. Their Chinese translation has been done in a more sophisticated way.

One of the best examples is Coca-Cola. The four Chinese characters representing the product brand are “Ke, Kou, Ke, Le,” and its pronunciation sounds very similar to the English. Even better, though, is its meaning: “delicious and happy.” This exactly matches the information that the brand wants to transfer to its potential customers. 

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Not all brands could be so lucky as Coca-Cola. In most cases, it is impossible to have such a meaningful coincidence. But Chinese translators still try to find a way to translate brands or product names so the pronunciation relates to the original English source and its meaning.

Head & Shoulders is a brand of anti-dandruff shampoo produced by Procter & Gamble, a multinational company known for personal care and household goods. The Chinese translation’s pronunciation is only related to the English original, with “Hi” and “Si” included. The meaning is not related to any heads or shoulders — it describes a scene in which you stand on a windswept beach with your beautiful long hair.
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While international brands are researching how to make their brands “sound Chinese,” Chinese brands are working on making their names “sound international.” For example, WeChat is a mobile text and voice messaging service developed by Tencent in China. The original Chinese name for WeChat is pronounced as “we sing”, the meaning is “tiny piece of information and communication.” While the easiest way would have been to just translate it to English as “WeSing”, it wouldn’t have conveyed the right meaning to potential customers. 

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Brand translation between Chinese and English is not only translation work, it is a part of marketing itself. What kind of information you want to pass to your potential customers about your brand is the most important key here. How you do it is, of course, art.

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