For companies looking to expand into Asia, one of the hardest steps is choosing the right name. Chinese in particular lends itself to plays on words, and it’s common for names to have multiple meanings that can either help a brand or damage it. The result is that a company name that seems simple and straightforward in English can have undesirable connotations when translated phonetically into Chinese.
For example, this story on CNN.com recounts the struggle that US-based law firm Kobre & Kim LLP went through to find a Chinese version of their name. While the Chinese character for “Kim” means “gold,” finding the right characters to approximate “Kobre” was harder. Eventually, the company decided on a combination of characters that means “Plentiful Knowledge and Victorious in Our Pursuit of Gold.”
That may sound like the “Tikki-tikki-tembo” of law office names, but it’s a lot better than some of the competition. William McGovern, Kobre and Kim’s managing partner in Hong Kong, told CNN that:
“A Chinese speaking partner at the Hong Kong office of another American law firm complimented our choice of name, and warned that more firms should put thought into their name, giving an example of one poorly translated name that could be read by native Chinese speakers to mean ‘garbage pile. We obviously are happy to have avoided that outcome.”
According to James McGregor, Dow Jones’ former CEO in China, Kobre and Kim was lucky to be able to put as much forethought into their name as they did. He explained to CNN that:
“Many companies don’t have much choice on what they name themselves in China, especially old companies that have been around for many years. In many cases, the Chinese media just make up transliterated names for them and they stuck.”
That almost happened to Coca-Cola, in one of the most famous translation mishaps. According to Snopes.com, the company put a lot of effort into deciding how to translate its name into Chinese. However, while they were doing their homework, shopkeepers in China were already selling Coke in their stores and transliterating the product name as they saw fit. The result was a slew of translations that were more or less phonetically accurate, but had nonsensical meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” The symbols the company officially settled on in 1928 mean “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice.”