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Translation of Western Brand Names in Chinese as a Marketing Strategy

Updated: May 27, 2023

IKEA in Shanghai © 2 dogs / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

We live in a multicultural and constantly connected world, where everyone can easily travel and communicate with people living in different countries with a simple “click”. This is why translation has become a crucial instrument to ensure fluent and simple communication among people who speak different languages, without setting anyone apart.

The commercial and marketing fields reflect this multilingual and heterogeneous reality. We constantly buy and use products coming from Europe and any part of the world. For most European citizens it is not a real problem if brand names are mostly in English because English is the most spoken language in Europe and they can easily understand their meaning. But what happens if we move our perspective to China? Do Chinese people find it difficult to understand foreign brands with names in European languages?

Of course, the answer is yes, and one of the reasons is very simple: it’s because of the different writing system, since European languages are based on alphabetic systems while Chinese is based on characters. This is the main reason why the most important brands rolled up their sleeves and decided to translate their brand names into Chinese.

In Brand Name Translation: Language Constraints, Product Attributes and Consumer Perceptions in East and Southeast Asia, Hong, Pecotich, and Schultz (2002) list the five strategic options to introduce a foreign brand in East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) markets:

  1. Entering the market with the original name;

  2. Entering the market with a phonetically translated brand name;

  3. Entering the market with a directly translated brand name;

  4. Entering the market with a combination of the original brand name and the phonetically translated name;

  5. Entering the market with a combination of the original brand name and the directly translated name.

Obviously, the choice is not as simple as one can imagine. Starting from this overview, in this article the focus will be on the main strategies to translate a brand name in Chinese, followed by examples of brands produced by members of the European Union. The main strategies to translate a brand are the following ones: phonetically, directly/literally or symbolically.

Phonetic translation refers to the reproduction of the sound of the brand, and it is generally used for patronymics - those brands based on names, surnames, or both. However, even if this strategy preserves the phonetic identity of the brand, it completely loses the meaning of it, making it difficult sometimes for Chinese people to remember them . Examples are the Danish brand Carlsberg (Jiā​shì​bó嘉士伯) and the Italian brand Ferrari (Fǎlālì 法拉利), they both were translated following this strategy, but in Chinese they have no meaning, therefore they lose, in a certain way, their essence as a product.

Literal translation is a mere translation of the words, as the name indicates. This strategy gives the possibility of preserving the meaning, but with a loss of the phonetic component. Contrary to the first strategy, this enables these brands to be easy to remember. An example is the Austrian brand Red Bull, translated Hóngniú 红牛, which literally means red bull.

The symbolic strategy is usually considered the best way to translate a brand name, since it captures the essence of a product and at the same time finds a balance between both sound and meaning. Examples of this last strategy are the German brand Mercedes-Benz and the Swedish Ikea. The Chinese translation of Mercedes-Benz is Bēnchí 奔驰, which has a similar sound of the original brand and it is composed of two characters whose meaning is to run quickly. Since Mercedes-Benz produces cars, this new version fits perfectly with its purpose. As for Ikea, the Chinese version is Yí​jiā 宜家, which sounds similar to the original brand name and its meaning in Chinese is suitable for home. Again, we can see how the new version perfectly reflects the essence of this brand and its products, since Ikea sells furniture and home accessories.

This is an effective and clever way to translate a brand name, as it reflects what the product is about and gives it an authentic personality. In this way, a brand has much more possibilities to have success in the target audience and in the target market.

When translating a brand from a European language into Chinese, it is important to consider two different factors. Firstly, as mentioned above, the different writing systems. Secondly, the cultural differences. For example the different colour symbolism: in Europe the colour white represents purity and it is usually associated with weddings, while black is associated with funerals. On the contrary, in China the colour white represents old age and mourning, and the colour black symbolises elegance and grace.

A good translation breaks cultural barriers and promotes a product in a strategic way. For example, Chinese people love brands which include characters such as 福 (“luck”), 乐 (“happy”), jīn 金 (“golden”) or that include the words lóng 龙 (“dragon”) and fènghuáng 凤凰 (“phoenix”), since dragon and phoenix are two of the most powerful symbols of success and prosperity in Chinese culture.

It is also crucial to pay attention to the translation of brand names, because mistakes can compromise the success of a brand, as was the case for the perfume named Poison produced by the French company Christian Dior. The term “poison” in the western market did not cause any issue. As a matter of fact, western people usually appreciate these kinds of names, because it catches their attention and stimulates their interest. Unfortunately, this is not the case of Chinese customers. Poison is associated with death and this brand name translated literally would not have had the same impact that it had in the western market. As a consequence, it was not translated as “poison”, but rather as Bǎiàishén 百爱神, which means “everyone will love it”.

For these reasons the translation process of a brand name is complicated, since it is necessary to consider all the factors listed above. It is important to find a balance between sound and meaning in order to create a Chinese version of a brand which is catchy and easy to remember in the target audience. To conclude, Wang Ning (Professor and Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Qinghua University) perfectly underlines the huge importance of culture in translation in his article Translatology: Toward a Scientific Discipline (2001).

Translation in today’s sense should be both a linguistic rendition as well as cultural interpretation, with the latter more emphatic.

As Wang Ning says, both linguistic and cultural aspects have to be considered when translating a brand’s name, but the cultural ones are even more relevant than the mere linguistic components. A good translation must be innovative and original in order to increase the sales rate and stimulate interest among consumers, thus creating a good image of the product. At the same time, there are numerous local cultural aspects that have to be taken into consideration when translating, otherwise these oversights may lead to misunderstanding and as a consequence to an unsuccessful result. These crucial aspects have to be applied in all fields that make it possible for Europe and China to communicate.

The core concept that we have to keep in our minds when translating a brand name is not only to overcome language and cultural differences, but also, and most importantly, to turn these differences into real and authentic key strengths for our translations.

Denise De Salvo is Italian. She graduated in Modern Languages for International Communication and Cooperation (Master’s degree) at the University of Macerata, where she studied Chinese and English Translation and Interpretation. In 2019, she won a Summer School Scholarship and she had the possibility to study at Beijing Normal University. She is strongly passionate about different cultures and different languages and her greatest passions are photography and travelling around the world. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Feng, X. (2017). On Aesthetic and Cultural Issues in Pragmatic Translation: Based on the Translation of Brand Names and Brand Slogans. Routledge

Hong, F. C. (Frank), Pecotich, A. and Shultz, C. J. (2002) ‘Brand Name Translation: Language Constraints, Product Attributes, and Consumer Perceptions in East and Southeast Asia’, Journal of International Marketing, 10(2), pp. 29–45. doi: 10.1509/jimk.

Liu, J. (2015). Name Selection in International Branding: Translating Brand Culture. Canadian Center of Science and Education, pp. 187-192.

Shi, H. (2017). Translation Strategies from Target Culture Perspective: An Analysis of English and Chinese Brands Names. International Journal of English Language & Translation Studies. 5(1), pp. 15-22.

Sun, Y., Wang, N. (2008). Translation, globalisation, and localisation: A Chinese perspective. Multilingual Matters, Buffalo, N.Y, p.100.

Wang, N., (2001) Translatology: Toward a Scientific Discipline, Chinese Translators’ Journal, 6, 2-6.


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