Western companies in China: the 13 best brand name translations

Translating a brand name into Mandarin Chinese is more of an art than a science.

Why would you translate Coca-Cola to Chinese? Translation is a surprisingly widespread practice because of two reasons. One, not everyone in China is comfortable with latin characters, especially the older generation; and two, the phonology of the language makes it impossible to pronounce brand names like Marlboro or MasterCard correctly.

The problem starts with hanzi, the Chinese characters. There are thousands of homophones, i.e., the same spoken syllable can be represented by many different characters, depending on meaning. This can lead to disasters, and this can lead to the most brilliant translations.

Nike is a great example. Both syllables are easy to pronounce in Chinese, and they sound very similar to English. But both "ni" (nai in Chinese) and "ke" can be written down with many characters. In theory Nike (Naike) could look like 奶渴 - roughly translated as "thirst for milk". In reality Nike is... Let's see!

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Chinese: 可口可乐
Pinyin: kĕkŏu kĕlè
Literal meaning: can-mouth-happy
Rough translation: happiness to the mouth

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Chinese: 宝马
Pinyin: Bǎomǎ
Literal meaning: treasure-horse
Rough translation: treasured horse

mercedes_benz_logo.png

Chinese: 奔驰
Pinyin: Bēnchí (Benz)
Literal meaning: run quickly-speed(/gallop)
Rough translation: galloping fast

Chinese: 乐购
Pinyin: Lègòu
Literal meaning: happy-buy
Rough translation: happy shopping

Chinese: 吉列
Pinyin: Jíliè
Literal meaning: lucky-row(/series)
Rough translation: series of good luck

Chinese: 万宝路
Pinyin: Wànbǎolù
Literal meaning: ten thousand-treasure-road
Rough translation: road of unlimited treasures

Chinese: 威士
Pinyin: Wēishì
Literal meaning: power-soldier(/trained in something)
Rough translation: mighty soldier

Chinese: 万事达
Pinyin: Wànshìdá
Literal meaning: ten thousand-things-to reach
Rough translation: reach everything you want

Chinese: 奥迪
Pinyin: Àodí
Literal meaning: mysterious(/Austrian)-guide
Rough translation: the mysterious Austrian guide :-)

Chinese: 福特
Pinyin: Fútè
Literal meaning: good fortune(/blessing)-exceptional
Rough translation: exceptional good fortune

Chinese: 宜家
Pinyin: Yíjiā
Literal meaning: suitable-home
Rough translation: a great home

Chinese: 乐高
Pinyin: Lègāo
Literal meaning: happy-high
Rough translation: great happiness

Chinese: 耐克
Pinyin: Nàikè
Literal meaning: to be able-can
Rough translation: capable (of just doing it!)