There’s an old urban legend about Coca-Cola’s debut in China. The story goes that Coke’s branding team took a shot at localizing the soda’s name by choosing Chinese characters that sounded similar to the English “Coca-Cola”. Unfortunately, working from a place of ignorance, they failed to check the meaning of each character before product launch.
They chose “蝌蝌龈蜡”.
“Bite the Wax Tadpole”.
But did that really happen? Well, kind of.
Thing is, the poor translation wasn’t actually crafted by Coke’s marketing team. Coca-Cola hit the Eastern shores in 1927, a year before the company had chosen an official Chinese name and registered the trademark. As the product popularized, shopkeepers, advertising their stock, were forced to create off-the-cuff translations by rendering the English lettering into Chinese on in-store placards, one of the more memorable of which was “Bite the Wax Tadpole”.
So, yes. While Coke was, for a short time, known in China by that unflattering moniker, it wasn’t an internal branding slip-up but rather arose organically from a market unsure how to pronounce the brand.
While the story has a happy ending for Coke (their Chinese name is now heralded as one of the best examples of English-Chinese branding) similar challenges abound. Even when companies do their research, failure happens. Retailer Best Buy flopped with the brand name 百思买, which sounds similar to the English name but means “Think a Hundred Times Before Purchase"...
Envato Heads East
Around the middle of last year, Envato Tuts+ published Monica Zagrobelna’s 10 Drawing Myths that Block Your Progress, which was translated into Chinese as part of our Translation Project.
The Chinese translation went viral, quickly becoming the year’s most popular Envato Tuts+ post, racking up over 31,000 shares on Facebook alone. With that stat doing little pirouettes at the tippy-top of our user graphs, we realized it made sense to create more dedicated content for a Chinese audience.
The conversation went something like this:
“We want to raise awareness about Envato in China and get more of our content localized.”
“Great. How do we say ‘Envato’ in Chinese?”
Without a name, you are nothing. Worse, without a localized brand presence, you may find yourself squarely in tadpole wax territory.
So how exactly does one take an English name like Envato and translate it into Chinese characters? This article from Zentron Consulting does a great job of digging into the details, but briefly, you can use two primary methods:
Translation is all about preserving meaning. With translation, we don’t worry about whether or not the translated Chinese name sounds like the original English name. We just try to find the most accurate parallel concept.
This method is better for place names that have easily translated meanings, like "The White House”. To translate “White House” into Chinese, we take the Chinese word for “white” and the Chinese word for “palace” (because ‘house’ doesn’t really do the place justice, does it?), and we get 白宫.
Doesn’t sound anything like the English words “white house” when read aloud, but the meaning is there.
Transliteration is about preserving the pronunciation across languages, so only the sounds matter. In other words, we try to find Chinese characters that sound similar to the original English name.
Washington, for example, translates into Chinese as 华盛顿, pronounced “Huá shèng dùn”. The characters themselves don’t mean anything, they’re just garble. But together they sound like Washington.
So, which method do we use?
Both. A great localized business name has a meaning that hints at what the company actually does, while also using characters that sound vaguely similar to the original English name. So it’s a bit of a logic puzzle.
In addition, an ideal Chinese brand localization must:
- Preserve the original meaning of the brand, or otherwise hints at the industry
- Sound similar to the English brand name when read aloud
- Not contain any unlucky characters or unintended double-entendres
- Not already be in use by an existing Chinese company
- Be unique enough that it’s search-engine friendly
- Read smoothly and not sound awkward to native speakers when read aloud
I need to you guide my sword
In every language words are more than meaning and sound. They have distinct personalities and atmospheric association. A pharmacy is not like an apothecary, though they could be defined identically.
As a non-Chinese company, we knew we’d need mountains of feedback from our Chinese audience to help us sift through the layers of meaning in each character. With every new proposal, we took the widest possible sampling of feedback from the wide variety of interpretations and distilled an understanding of how each character was resonating with our audience. We did on-the-ground surveys in Beijing and got online feedback from Envato users in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The first round of brainstorming was a pen and paper session that yielded over 50 translation options, most of which were eliminated immediately via horrified grimace during surveys. We winnowed these down to two possibilities, and surveyed again:
因 yīn = No real meaning, but this character is used in the word “internet” (因特网), so it’s being used for both its pronunciation and its tech flavor.
网 wǎng = Net, network
途 tú = Road, distance, travel, path, journey Meaning: Though there’s no exact meaning to these characters together, they do evoke an abstract vision of interconnected journeys, as well as a network of people, as well as a website.
艺 yì = Skill, craft
玩 wán = To play, to have fun, to go out, to mess around
都 dū = Capital city, metropolis
Meaning: These characters suggest “a fun place where we use our skills to create things”. It brings to mind a vague vision of a city where many craftsmen and artists and skilled workers are all busy making cool products.
No go. The character 途 (journey) in option A, said respondents, sounded too much like a travel company, and Option B, said some, sounded “like the name of a cheesy internet cafe from the 80’s”. We decided to scrap them both and go back to the drawing board for another round.
Round two was more narrow. We spoke with translators and linguists in Beijing, and dug deeper into Envato’s core values. That round resulted in this little beauty:
艺 yì = Skill, technique, artistry, craftsmanship
云 yún = Cloud. Many tech companies use the word “cloud” to hint at “data in the cloud”, so there’s a very distant hint of tech in here. Also, this is the first character in the word 云集, literally ”cloud gathering” - it means “convergence” or “to converge“.
艺 + 云 Considering the above, these two characters combined can mean “a convergence of talent”.
瓦舍 wǎ shě = A “washe“ was a special type of gathering place that rose to prominence during the Song Dynasty. Washe were specifically business, art and entertainment areas, where deals were done and artisans sold goods. In ancient times, there was usually a stage with performances or theater under the same roof. In modern times, the word hints at commercial prosperity.
The response to the first two characters 艺云 was very positive, but the last two, 瓦舍, were a little contentious. Some people loved 瓦舍, some found it too literary and unapproachable. Envato’s culture is anything but aloof so we wanted to see if we could get something better.
Round 3: Say Hello to 艺云台 (Yi Yun Tai)
The final piece of the puzzle came from Envato user Kin Hang, who, like many of our respondents, invested an incredible amount of time and thought into helping us tackle this challenge.
Kin’s suggestion, 艺云台 preserves our “Skill Cloud” characters from the previous round, but replaces “瓦舍“ with 台, meaning “platform” - a little more modern and techy, a little more approachable, and a little more reminiscent of the original brand name.
It’s not a perfect transliteration for Envato, but it’s within shouting distance.
We’re very much looking forward to forging ahead in localizing our content for our Chinese users. If you’d like to help, please get in touch with Ian Yates (English) email@example.com or Kendra Schaefer (Chinese) firstname.lastname@example.org