Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Translation vs. Transliteration: Adapting a Business Name for the Foreign Marketplace

Many companies choose to enter the Chinese market because China is a global superpower. An important note for such companies to remember is that the company name is often converted into Chinese, and this can be very challenging. Because company names and taglines are created by professionals to have specific appeal, direct translation does not always have the intended effect.

There are many examples of bad translations or literal translations that have the wrong meaning. A couple famous examples include Pepsi and KFC. When Pepsi created the tagline “Come Alive: You’re in the Pepsi Generation,” the straight translation into Chinese took on a very different meaning with “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” KFC had a similar problem when their tagline, “Finger-lickin’ Good,” was translated as “Eat Your Fingers Off.”

To avoid such errors, it is recommended to use a transliteration instead of a direct translation. Transliteration is the process of converting a sound from the source language (e.g., English) with a corresponding character in the target language (e.g., Chinese). Although this process appears to be a simple phonetic conversion, it differs in that it converts a sound to a character. This helps avoid the problems caused by similar sounds in Chinese having very different meanings. For example, the word “gao” in Cantonese can mean dog, nine or penis depending on the tone. Phonetic conversion caused problems for Coca-Cola when the phonetic conversion of their name translated as “Bite the wax tadpole”. When this was noticed, Coca-Cola decided to use transliteration to come up with “ko-kou-ko-le” which still sounds similar to the English name while retaining a meaning that makes sense, “happiness in the mouth”.

There are a few simple ways to avoid such gaffes. The key thing to remember is to use a native Chinese speaker to do your translation. Using a native speaker also helps to avoid potential problems that stem from local slang. Double-check the translation by having a second translator do a back-translation to check the English meaning of the Chinese business name and/or tagline. If your company name and/or tagline carry a specific meaning that may not be clear, it is crucial to convey the meaning to the translator so that they may try to keep a similar connotation with the translation.

Image source: http://www.foodchannel.com/articles/article/la-area-mcdonalds-goes-feng-shui/

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