Trade Mark Translation - A Literal Problem

(In this article, Mandarin is presented in both the simplified and traditional textual forms) There can be no questioning the status of China as a major player in the global trade arena. China is the second largest trading partner of both the USA[1] and the European Union[2]. Australia and Japan rank China as their number one trading partner[3], while it is the third largest trading partner of Africa, viewed as a continent.

In a move indicative of China’s integration into the world economy, a free trade agreement was signed between New Zealand and China recently. This was the first such agreement to be concluded by China with a truly first world country.

[4] existing trade marks either from English to Mandarin or from Mandarin to English. This remains a challenge, whether or not the company counts Mandarin as part of its corporate culture.For any company wishing to do business in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or Malaysia (a country with a significant Mandarin-speaking population), or for that matter a company based in any of these territories wishing to trade elsewhere, it has become increasingly important to translate or transliterate.

It’s all part of Marketing

When entering these Mandarin-orientated markets, a key element of any company’s marketing strategy must be effective trade mark translation or transliteration. The failure to have a detailed analysis of the translation or transliteration can indeed result in the failure of the company in these jurisdictions.

Many years ago, Continental Tyres, a respected brand worldwide, entered into the Taiwanese market and at that stage called themselves () - pronounced Ta Lu Luen Tai, i.e. Continent Tyres. Unbeknown to Continental Tyres, () Da Lu is the colloquial term for China/mainland, thus calling themselves "Mainland China" Tyres. In those days there was a perception that Chinese goods were not up-market. The result was that Continental Tyres suffered a setback in breaking into the market and wasted substantial amounts of money on advertising which publicised the brand in an unintended manner.

Companies eager to break into foreign markets generally make the following mistakes:

1. Nonsensical translations

Trade marks are sometimes so long and cumbersome that the transliterated versions are difficult to remember and ultimately make no sense. Some typical examples of nonsensical transliterations include: (}rr) as YUN SHAN FU XIAN ZHU LI, while () takes the long winded form of ZHENG DA QING CHUN BAO. The baffled consumer may well think "say what?" Distinctiveness is generally desirable for trade marks, but it can also be too much of a good thing.

The same principle applies when a foreign language is translated into Mandarin. The more complex and lengthy the translation the less attractive the trade mark.

2. Non-translation of trade marks

Despite their presence in non-Mandarin markets, a number of Chinese trade marks do not translate their trade marks. In fact, they appear to avoid from adopting a mark which is recognizable by members of the non-Mandarin markets. To give a an few examples, Chinese marks such as, pronounced Li Bai and[5] pronounced Bu Bu Gao, are sold outside of China but they are not translated. There can be scant hope that these brands - in their current form - will ever establish brand loyalty in the minds of consumers who are not well versed in Mandarin.

The same applies to non-Chinese companies that enter the Chinese market and do not bother to translate their trade marks. They may as well opt to write in isiZulu - and it would make little difference to the average Chinese consumer.

3. Negative connotations and bad literal translations

In practice it often occurs that the translation of a word sounds similar if not identical to an existing word; caution must be exercised in these circumstances. Completely literal translations may also have unforeseen effects and in certain circumstances appear to be vulgar.

It is embarrassing to learn that the translation of a well-known Chinese medicine, famed for its abilities to ease menopause pains, "" - pronounced Wuji Baifeng Wan - is translated as BLACK COCK WHITE PHOENIX PILLS. To further dismay the introduction of the medicine reads: "Black Cocks Provide the Vital Tonic for Women".[6] Beware of literal translations!

In traditional Chinese culture the number 4 is associated with death, as its sound approximates that of the Mandarin word for death. It is therefore generally absent from Chinese trade marks. The company Carrefour cleverly translated its name as () pronounced Jia Le Fu, which literally means "family, happy and good fortune", and this is a very successful trade mark in Mandarin-speaking territories.

4. Common translations and inconsistent use

English translations with Chinese characters such as , and , are now so common[7] that they suffer dilution in the Chinese market as numerous western trade marks incorporate them. For example, the word is used in (Chrysler), (Shrek), (Nike) (Symantec). An increasing number of Chinese companies incorporate characters suggesting a western origin to add a little "foreign flavour" to their trade marks. In time the dilution will thus only get worse. Translations of trade marks are not always used consistently in all Mandarin-speaking territories[8]: the trade mark "Head & Shoulders" is known as (z) with five characters in Taiwan, but in China, it is translated as "" (wz), with three characters. This can cause unnecessary uncertainty for consumers and some consumers may even view the one product as a counterfeit of the other.


It is important to have multiple considerations when rendering a trade mark in transliterated form. This includes but is not limited to the user-friendliness of the translated trade mark. To all intents and purposes this must be as simple and as effective as possible and common words should be avoided if possible. Cultural and negative connotations must be carefully considered. Contextual, formal, aesthetic features should always be taken into account when formulating a trade mark.

By way of example, Mercedes Benz is rendered as e and pronounced Bin Shi, which can be literally translated as "High class/important, gentleman". Similarly, BMW is rendered asR () and pronounced Bao Ma which literally means "treasure horse". These are highly successful trade marks in Mandarin-speaking territories. In fact, in China these two brands are referred to as the "double B’s". Unilever’s KNORR is cleverly translated as (), pronounced Kang Bao, which literally means "health treasure". These make for excellent trade marks in that they merge semantics with phonetics and utilize the Chinese wording to suggest the particular features of their products.

It is often difficult for a non-Mandarin speaker to determine whether or not a trade mark is indeed a good trade mark for use in a Mandarin-orientated market. The trade mark "treasure horse" is probably not a good trade mark if applied in English to high-end motor vehicles. The same applies for non-English-speaking Chinese. Thus a major part of the strategy is obtaining and relying on the correct advice.

Latest developments

While we have touched on translations of trade marks and considerations pertaining thereto, a new area that companies are already looking into is the registration of Mandarin trade marks in countries that are traditionally not Mandarin orientated. China’s "go out" policy of the late 1990’s will continue to see a significant rise in the number of Chinese people travelling and settling abroad.

It has become increasingly important to revise, review and consider filing Mandarin trade marks in non-Mandarin speaking countries. This is not only because companies are eager to capitalize on existing brand loyalty and goodwill but also because it is a good strategy from an anti-counterfeiting point of view.

That is, however, another topic altogether and as the age-old Chinese proverb warns, "do not add legs to the snake".

Joseph Lin Spoor & Fisher - Chinese Unit

[1] US Census Bureau (accessed on 7 May 2008).

[2] European Commission (accessed on 7 May 2008).

[3] M Cook Building on Strong Foundations – The future of China Australia relationship (2007) 2.

[4] Translation refers to "the written or spoken rendering of the meaning of a word, speech, book or other text, in another language", whereas transliteration is to "write or print (a letter or word) using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language". Definitions drawn from The New Oxford Dictionary of English (2001) edited by J Pearsall.

[5] Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China Website (accessed on 7 April 2008).

[6] For more examples on vulgar translations see He Hui The Problems in Trade Mark Translations and their solutions (April 2004)(Vol 4, no 4) 72; cf Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China (accessed on 7 April 2008).

[7] Op cit FN 5.

[8] Ibid.

Date published: 2008/06/05
Author: Joseph Lin

Tags: trade mark translation mandarin china