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Someday, China will be the biggest consumer market in the world. No wonder marketers are increasingly interested in Chinese naming.
With his training in classical and modern Chinese literature plus an advanced American psychology degree in bilingual memory research, Andy Chuang (pictured) is the first in his family’s 1,500-year history to master not only Chinese, but also English.
His company, Good Characters Inc., founded in 2001 in Fresno, California, specializes in Chinese naming and linguistic and cultural evaluation.
We sat down with Andy to talk about the rationale and the process of Chinese naming.
Q: Americans have a set of basic assumptions about how they name things. Is it true that the Chinese have a completely different orientation towards naming?
Americans typically choose existing first names for their babies. For example, John, David, or Mary. However, the Chinese name their babies in the same manner you would name a company or a product. The Chinese pick some “good characters” and put them together to form a “good meaning.”
Consider the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, as an example. Hu is his family name. His first name, Jintao, is the combination of two characters, Jin and Tao. Jin is “brocade” or “bright and beautiful.” Tao is “big waves.” By putting these two together, Jin-tao means “enchanting waves” or, metaphorically, “splendid success” since brocade is associated with richness and success and big waves are strong and unstoppable.
Q: Do you have to be careful when you combine characters?
Definitely. Combining characters should be performed only by those with expertise in the Chinese language because linguistic elements, such as homophones, and cultural and historical context have to be considered.
For example, you might think that putting together Jin, “beautiful,” as mentioned earlier, and Zhang, “medal” or “decorative pattern,” would mean “beautiful medal” or “beautiful pattern.” But that is only correct in one aspect. There is an existing term that sounds exactly the same but means “nervous” or “tense.” This term is used more frequently, so when a Chinese speaker hears Jin-Zhang the first thing that comes to mind is “nervous,” not “beautiful medal.”
Q: What happens to an American name like “John” in Chinese?
Here is an example. A client wanted to create a Chinese name seal for John and came to us for advice. “John” is a Biblical name that is traditionally transliterated as Yue Han in Chinese. It does not sound as “John” is pronounced in English, but it resembles the way it was when the Bible was first translated into Chinese.
The character Yue means “promise” and Han means “writing.” As it is written, Yue Han is fine as it stands. The client mentioned that this person was very athletic. Immediately, we had a better, though much less common, transliteration in mind. We chose the character Qiang (pronounced chee-ahng) for “John.” Qiang means “strong” in Chinese. It not only sounded much more like “John” in English, but also better represented the client because it spoke of his athleticism.
Q: What about working with company names?
A company name can be rendered into Chinese by translation, according to its meaning; transliteration, according to its sound; or a combination of the two.
The most common method is transliteration as Chinese usually want to remember a new English name by “converting” the sound into Chinese equivalents. In transliteration, the ideal is to create a Chinese name that sounds the closest to the original name and has positive associations.
For example, Hewlett-Packard’s Chinese branding is Hui-Pu. Hui is “kindness” and Pu, “universal.” (A Chinese term, Pu-Tien, “universal” and “the sky,” means “all over the world.”) So Hui-Pu can mean “benefit to all.” It sounds somewhat like Hewlett-Packard and has a good meaning that fits the company’s philosophy and position.
Another example is Google. It is transliterated as Gu Ge, literally “valley” and “song” or “singing.” The pronunciation sounds like Google in English.
In the case of Starbucks, the Chinese name is a mix of translation and transliteration: Xing Ba Ke. Xing, pronounced sseeng, is the Chinese translation for star; and Ba Ke is the transliteration of -bucks.
Q: What about the sound of the words as opposed to the meaning of the characters?
The kind of association each brings should be evaluated carefully before deciding whether the name should be best translated or transliterated. Some names are better translated.
For example, when a name has strong and obvious negative audio associations to the Chinese ear, translation or loose transliteration has to be used.
Take Facebook, which does not have an official Chinese name at the moment. Facebook sounds very much like fei si bu ke in Chinese, which means “must die.” Therefore, the literal translation, Lian Shu, “face” and “book,” is the nickname the Chinese media and users currently use.
Here’s another example. Toshiba once had as a commercial in China a song that said, “Toshiba, Toshiba…” However, “to-shi-ba” sounded like “let’s steal it” (tou-chu-ba) in Mandarin Chinese. People really made fun of it.
Fortunately, Toshiba is a Japanese name and its corresponding characters, Dong-Zhi, means “the East” and “nobility.” Now Toshiba uses Dong-Zhi more often and is careful when using the pronunciation of “Toshiba.”
Often, names are not entirely translated or transliterated, but rather are adapted from or inspired by the original.
For example, Oracle’s official Chinese brand is Jia Gu Wen. It sounds nothing like “Oracle,” but it is one of the most fascinating names we have ever seen. Jia Gu Wen was one of the earliest forms of Chinese written language, dating back more than 3,000 years. Not only was that writing the most advanced way to store information at the time, but also it was used for prophecy and forecasting. It fits Oracle’s competency in database applications and business intelligence applications very well and also has a clear association with the English word Oracle, which means “a foreteller.”
Q: Are there names that work well in both English and Chinese—the same name in both languages?
A couple of good names come to mind. For example, Hulu is a name that sounds unique to English speakers and is very meaningful to Chinese.
A hulu, literally “gourd” in Chinese, is traditionally hollowed out to hold alcohol or Chinese medicine. There’s a phrase roughly translated “I wonder what kind of medicine he has (or is trying to sell me) in his hulu.” So “hulu” implies something that contains a wide variety of items or a mystery. It suits Hulu’s mission to provide the world’s premium video content. I like it because it sort of says, “I wonder what’s on TV?”
Another example is Apple’s social network for music called Ping. Perhaps when Apple execs selected the name they were thinking of the computer term “ping.” Whatever their reasons, the name has a great ring for Chinese speakers. In Chinese, the poetic phrase ping shui xiang feng is commonly used to describe causal encounters. The expression means “to meet by chance, like patches of drifting duckweed.”
So to use the word ping in relation to social connections—around music or anything else—is very Chinese. Add to that the fact that apple in Chinese is ping guo, and the name Ping speaks loudly and clearly—and cleverly—of an Apple online social network.
Q: In general, what guidelines would you propose for anyone considering naming in China?
First, it would be important to conduct a Chinese cultural and linguistic analysis before deciding on a new name, even if you are not planning to launch your product in China. This is to minimize the chance of creating a name that sounds profane or has negative associations in one or more of the various Chinese languages.
A name should be evaluated under Mandarin (the official Chinese language), Cantonese, and Taiwanese (also called Min Nan or Hokkien). These are the three most widely spoken languages by Chinese in China and in countries that have a million or more Chinese in their populations – the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Consider Shanghainese evaluation as well if you operate in Shanghai.
Second, conduct Chinese name studies and trademark research if you are preparing to enter the future’s biggest consumer market in the world. Your Chinese company or brand name should contain two to three characters and, with few very rare exceptions, never more than five. The more characters in the name, the weaker it sounds and the less memorable it is.
The name should also be easy to pronounce and free from negative political, social, historical, or psychological associations. And the trademark research and registration should be done throughout jurisdictions in Greater China, including China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore to fully protect your intellectual property.
Contributed to BSI by: Steve Rivkin
Sponsored By: Brand Aid