Lost in Chinese Translation

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When talking about loan words or translated words in Chinese language, we can immediately distinguish if a Chinese word is an original Chinese word, or translated one/borrowed one. Typically, lots of unusually sounds would appear in the translated names, like 特(Tè),克( kè),斯(sī),机( jī),姆(mǔ),those are the translation for the ending consonants(t,k,s,ky,m) in English. One interesting thing in Chinese is that we never have one single character which ends in consonant, or even with a consonant syllable.

1. Translation of a commercial brand
Almost all of the commercial brands are translated when they enter Chinese market, for the following reasons:

a. In the last decades, most people don’t speak English, if you keep the English brand, Chinese people can make 100 different pronunciations, and if by any chance, the direct pronouce sounds bad in Chinese, it would be a bad sign for your business. Facebook is an example, as it has no Chinese name, when using it in a Chinese sentence, it can be misunderstood as 非死不可(Fēi sǐ bùkě) which means “must die”.

b. It is hard for Chinese people to remember a foreign brand without Chinese characters to associate

c. Another reason is, with translating to Chinese, instead of just a brand, thanks to rich Chinese characters and meanings, you can impress your consumer a lot by translating it to a good and lucky brand name.

There are lots of well translated international brand enters Chinese market and made lots of successes, they follow simple rules: List the candidate characters that sounds like the original brand name, then choose combine them using the ones that symbolize a positive meaning such as happy, delicious, cozy, more…

Just some famous examples:

Coca Cola – 可口可乐 (Kěkǒukělè) – Delicious and happy
Pepsi Cola – 百事可乐(Bǎishìkělè)- One hundred things are happy
BMW – 宝马(Bǎomǎ) – Precious steed
Ikea – 宜家 (Yíjiā) – suitable and cozy for family
Carrefour – 家乐福(jiālèfú) – happiness, prosperity and family

However, brands like Google, Best Buy are the ones that are not successful in this area in China, check The worst Chinese names for foreign tech companies.

2. Translate name of a country, city, or person
I guess the best motivation are for commercials, there are not so many special things in terms of country and city translation, the only logic is phonetic transcription and represented with Chinese characters.

Examples are like:

United Kingdom 英国 ying guo
France 法国 fa guo
Germany 德国 de guo
America 美国 mei guo

If you learn Chinese, you will know that each Chinese character has an original meaning, if we are to check the Chinese translation of each cuntry, then we have the following:

United Kingdom – 英国 – ying guo – brave kingdom
France – 法国 – fa guo – law kingdom
Germany – 德国 – de guo – moral kingdom
America – 美国 – mei guo – Beautiful kingdom

The literal translation of the countries are funny, right? But do we really think so?
No, don’t get fooled by that, as I mentioned above, it is only phonetic, and the character that we chose to translate the countries happen to be the most commonly used characters.

Are you curious about the literal Chinese translation about your own country?

3. Chinese words invented for translation
For things that don’t exist in China until imported, we usually prefer to give a literal translation. But I see the trend of increasing for phonetic transcripts for imported objects that have an official Chinese name already. It usually started from the internet, young people, or from Hong kong, now almost everyone in China use phonetic ones, although in Chinese there is no related meaning.

Examples are:
cookies – 饼干 – 曲奇(quqi)
bus – 公共交通 – 巴士(bashi)
cheese – 奶酪 – 芝士(zhishi)
microphone – 话筒,扩音器 – 麦克风(maikefeng)
taxi – 出租车- 的士(dishi)
engine – 发动机 – 引擎(yinqing)
shopping – 逛街 – 血拼(xueping)
fans – 迷 – 粉丝(fensi)
massage – 按摩 – 马杀鸡(mashaji)
T-shirt – 短袖衬衫 – T恤(tixue)
show – 表演 – 秀(xiu)

安可 – an ke
This word has bothered me for a while, since young, I knew people shout this word after a show/performance wanting more. But this word actually does not make any sense in Chinese at all, literally, it means, safe or not, or settle down or not. (Unfortunately internet was not that popular when I was younger)

Until I learned French, I heard the word “encore” so many times in Alors on dance, I had an epiphany, it is actually an imported French word! So this is another word made up in Chinese just for phonetic transcript!

Now who says Chinese are not international? :p

Now coming back to lost in Chinese translation, some real examples. (embarrassed)

Some pictures are from the internet.

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  1. There are many hilarious signs in China, hehe. In my compound there are signs that say “no parabolic discharging” when what they mean is “don’t throw things from the windows”. However when I have to deal with shitty translations at work I don’t find them so amusing haha.

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