I am often asked to analyze some English brand names regarding the “connotation/association” of their pronunciation in Chinese culture. This is something for which I am not “confident” of being able to deliver good results. Here is why.

Chinese language is a unique language system that differs drastically from those phonetic languages systems in the West. Chinese characters are created, developed and based on graphic presentations.

Language Market

In Chinese language, a same syllable can have several different characters corresponding to it. For example, the two characters “血” and “雪” have absolutely the same pronunciation as “Shueh”, but the former means “blood” while the latter “snow”. Let’s take another instance: here we have three characters—“赤”, “斥” and “翅”, all with the same sound as “Tsi”. If you ask me whether the pronunciation “Tsi” is “negative” or “positive” in Chinese culture or in any specific background/context, I really can’t tell, because the first means “red”, the second means “scold” and the third “wing”. Very complex for non-Chinese speaker, isn’t it?

When selling their products to foreign markets, brand owners usually list out the product names and ask a native translator of the target market to evaluate their effects/connotations in the language/cultures of the target country. This works well within the phonetic language phylum, but does not apply to Chinese language. This because a same syllable can have some many different characters representing it, and it can be positive, neutral or negative—all depending on which character you choose.

My suggestion is: when marketing to Chinese market, get a Chinese translator to “create” a Chinese name for your product. When I say “create”, I mean not “translate” or “transliterate”. The usual/successful practice is to deliberately choose a few Chinese characters with certain positive meanings in your desired industry background to deliver whatever the connotation you deem to best fit, and the pronunciation of these characters are still close to that of the original word. One of the very successful examples is the Colgate, the main products of which selling in China are toothpastes. It has a very neat Chinese name as “高露洁”, which reads as “Gao Lu Jie”. These three characters respectively means “high”, “dewdrop” and “clean”—very nice isn’t it? If we chose some other characters such as “寇丐特” (reading “Kou Gai Te”), it wouldn’t have sold a single tube out, because these three characters mean respectively the “bandit”, “beggar” and “spy”.

See, what I mean is: don’t ask us how a word sounds for us in the Chinese language (most of the ordinary Chinese ears are not sensitive to Latin/English words), but ask us to create good Chinese names for it—that’s called “cultural localization”!


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