Foreign brand names

This question of whether brands should only be transliterated came up on #pidgin. Actually, it rather first came up on the translators list, but the question specifically relating to brands was mentioned on the channel.

Since I was not making sense when I answered the quesiton on #pidgin, perhaps I should try to reorganize my thoughts here.

There are, we could say, four main ways to handle foreign brands (that are not Japanese, Korean, etc.): keeping it as-is, having it translated, having it just transliterated, and having it transliterated but with some meaning.

First is to keep the brand name as-is. This is actually very widespread. Even if a brand has an official Chinese name, the untranslated, original brand name is often used.

Second is to have the brand name translated. This is rare, but it does happen, sometimes. One example is “IBM”; another is “Microsoft”.

Third is to have the brand name transliterated, purely, using plain and usual transliteration conventions, usually resulting in a string of words that has no or little meaning. There are many examples, like “MacDonald’s”, “Motorola”, “Rank Xerox”, “Rolex”, etc.

Fourth is to have the brand name transliterated in such a way that it has a meaning (not necessarily the original meaning). Since almost all Chinese characters intrinsically have some meaning, this is actually very common when doing brand names: since people don’t like their brands having a bad meaning, it would make sense to proactively give it a good meaning to start with. Examples abound, like:

  • “Coca Cola”—“tasty and enjoyable”
  • “Pepsi Cola”—”everything is enjoyable“
  • “Titus” (the Swiss watch)—“definitely on time”
  • “Carrier” (the air conditioner manufacturer)—“generating profit”
  • “HP”—“benefitting the public” (this is borderline considered a transliteration, like BMW below)
  • “Porsche”—“guaranteed to be always fast”
  • “BMW” could be considered an extreme example of this, having its Chinese brand name meaning “precious horse” which might be seen as a pun to the meaning of the “M”; it could only be considered a transliteration because the name starts with the “B” and “M” sounds.

There is actually a fifth way, which is to make up a Chinese name that has absolutely no relation to the original brand name, whether in meaning or in sound. Two Canadian examples are “Telus” (the cell phone network, Chinese name “researching science”) and “ScotiaBank” (referring to Nova Scotia or New Scotland, but with Chinese name meaning “prosperous (successful) business”).

As a kind of context, it may be worth mentioning that “Gaim” had been handled using the first of the above ways, i.e., it had never been transliterated or translated.


This article was originally posted on my Friendster blog in 2007. Since Friendster has terminated its blog service, I will put a copy of this article here before I figure out where I should put all the old articles.