Web Translation Projects/Translation of proper names in Mandarin and English

About the projectEdit

Jagiellonian University logo

In this project I would like to describe the problem of translating proper names in English and Mandarin. I will focus on the translation of: film titles, book titles, geographical names and company names. I will analyse these names and present the methods of creating proper names in Chinese. In addition, I want to describe trends in the translation of Chinese names into European languages (mainly into English).

The following project is a part of the 'Translation on the web' course held at the Jagiellonian University[1] (Cracow, Poland); 2021

Official transcription of MandarinEdit

Pinyin is the official transcription of Mandarin, introduced by the reforms of the Central Committee of the People's Republic of China in the 1950s. Pinyin is made up of Latin letters that are the voiced equivalents of the Chinese sounds. Because Chinese languages are tonal languages, the transcription features the corresponding four tone indicators: flat, rising, falling and rising and falling.[2]

Language differences between Mandarin and EnglishEdit

To understand the difficulties involved in translating names from Mandarin into English and vice versa, it is useful to begin by outlining the general differences between the two languages. Chinese is a pictorial language, which means that every Chinese character corresponds to and some linguistic value. In practice, this means that a Chinese character can contain several meanings and, like its own meaning, it can also be part of another word clusters that give it a new meaning. The letters do not mean anything by themselves, but their specific arrangement makes it possible for us to understand the words and the meaning they carry. At this level, we can already see that it is not possible to transfer loss-free information from a language consisting of letters of the alphabet of a language consisting of characters and vice versa.[3]

Indeed, the fact that there are a large number of multisyllabic words in Chinese renders determining the meaning of such words more complicated in comparison to simply adding up the meaning of each character. This is particularly true for multi-character words that convey abstract meanings. There are no spaces between words in the Mandarin script. Native Chinese speakers process multi-character words much more differently than native English speakers would process multisyllabic or even compound words. Chinese speakers process multisyllabic words by immediately conceptualising the words around them. Native speakers of Chinese do not perceive characters as separate from each other. Native speakers of Chinese do not perceive characters as mutually exclusive. Taking brand names as a whole, they mean nothing and are therefore more difficult to remember than brand names with inherent semantic meaning, which is exactly what brand names should be.[4]

Methods of translating English proper names into ChineseEdit

References to the meaning in the characters (References only)Edit

Each character in Mandarin has multiple meanings. They are often clustered around one or more centers of meaning, e.g. 乐 means: happy, glad, enjoyable, cheerful, but also can mean music. Thus, this character carries positive connotations and is often used to create foreign brand names e.g. 可口可乐 (Kěkǒukělè) Coca-cola.[5] This method is not the most popular because it causes the original brand identity to fade and it is difficult to identify in the global market. The Chinese branch of a brand is considered to be a completely different entity and does not comply with the universality and general recognition of the brand worldwide. The disadvantage of this approach is that in most cases the new Chinese name does not sound like the original brand name. These businesses will have to invest time and money in marketing to establish brand awareness and create associations between the original brand name and the Chinese trademarks.

Literal translationEdit

In this approach we can also specify the literal translation of proper names. This is what the owners of Apple and Microsoft have decided to do. Both companies have a literal translation of their name into Chinese. Microsoft in Chinese is 微软 (Wéiruǎn), where wéi is the word for micro and ruǎn is the word for soft. The Chinese brand 苹果 (Píngguǒ) literally means apple.

Occasionally in Mandarin, loanwords even take the form of the Latin alphabet being used instead of the characters themselves, such as T恤 (T-shirt) or 卡拉OK (karaoke). Since pinyin is a fairly integral part of modern Chinese, there seems to be a certain universality to the alphabet that allows it to be used in slang.

Sound transcription (Transcription only)Edit

Another way is to create a name based on sounds in other languages. Syllables in foreign language expressions are converted into syllables in Chinese. However, this method is not very popular. The reason for this is, on the technical side, the great limitation of syllables in Chinese. There are no syllables in Chinese such as: -tha, -tsu, -przy, so it is impossible to create exact equivalents to syllables, e.g. [English] thanks, [Japanese] tsunami, [Polish] przypadek (case).

However, this method is most often used when foreigners choose Chinese names. Because of the aforementioned problem with Chinese phonetics, Chinese people prefer to address foreigners by their Chinese name. Therefore, western names are transliterated and written in Chinese characters, e.g. Thomas 托马斯 (tuō mǎ sī) , Adam 阿达姆 (ā dá mǔ)

The same is true for the translation of geographical areas, such as the names of countries. Many of them were created only with reference to the sound. Often the names of certain countries were created on the basis of the English pronunciation of given words, e.g. Poland, the Netherlands, which in Chinese are called respectively 波兰 (Bōlán) [English: Poland], 荷兰 (Hélán) [English: Holland].[6]

The second problem with this method is a cultural one. China is a hermetic and relatively closed culture. Companies that stay with their original name will not achieve a good position in the Chinese market. Therefore, choosing the right name for a company is key to its success on the stock market. Global giants in the food service industry, such as McDonald's or Lay's, appear in China under names unfamiliar to westerners. McDonald's is 麦当劳 (Màidāngláo) in Chinese and Lay's is translated as 乐事 (Lèshì).

In the case of McDonald's the name is mainly based on a similar sound in English. The individual characters of the name mean respectively: 麦 (mài) wheat, barley, oats 当 (dāng) bear, accept, undertake 劳 (láo) labor, toil, do manual work.[7] Lay's, on the other hand, draws its name from both the similar sound and the positive meaning of the two characters, which we can translate as - Happy Event. Although it is not a direct reference to eating potato chips, the name fulfils the most important conditions for adapting to the Chinese market.[8]

It is only beneficial to phonetically translate a company's brand name if that company already has a reputable reputation in the Chinese market.

References to the meaning contained in the characters + Sound transcription (References + transcription)Edit

The most desirable method is undoubtedly a combination of the previous two. The transliteration of the original name preserves the brand identity and the positive meaning of the marks contributes to its recognition in the Chinese market and universality among the Chinese community.

The key to creating a name of this type is to find corresponding characters that have a similar meaning to the original name, as well as being phonetically similar to the foreign name.

Proper names translation analysisEdit

Brand namesEdit

English Name Chinese name Pinyin transcription Method used
Adidas 爱迪达 Ài Dí Dá transcription only
Nike 耐克 Nài Kè references + transcription
puma 彪马 Biāo Mǎ references + transcription
Reebok 锐步 Ruì Bù references + transcription
Rolex 劳力士 Láolì Shì references only
Nescafé 雀巢咖啡 Què Cháo Kāfēi references + transcription
Starbucks 星巴克 Xīng Bā Kè references only
Costa 咖世家 kā Shì Jiā references + transcription
Sheraton 喜来登酒店 xǐ Lái Dēng Jiǔdiàn references + transcription
Hilton 希尔顿 Xī Ěr Dùn transcription only
Marriott 万豪国际 Wàn Háo Guójì references only

Adidas has decided to make a phonetic translation of its name. The characters 爱迪达 do not have a similar meaning to the clothing brand itself, but they carry a generally positive meaning, and the whole name is pronounced in Chinese similar to the English name.

Nike chose to use a commingling of the two methods to create a name with similar meaning, as well as a meaning that connotes the durability of the apparel it offers. 耐 means capable of enduring; able to tolerate; patient; durable, while 克 means to be able to; to subdue; to restrain; to overcome.

A similar strategy has been chosen by Puma, which also sounds similar to the English name in Chinese. The characters themselves that make up the name of this brandstand for tiger stripes and horse respectively.

An interesting case is the company Starbucks, whose Chinese name consists of a literal translation of the word star in Chinese (星) and a literal transcription of the second part of the name -bucks (巴克).

Geographical namesEdit

Country Pinyin Mandarin
England Yīngguó 英国
Australia Aòdàlìyà 澳大利亚
China Zhōngguó 中国
France Fǎguó 法国
Greece Xīlà 希腊
Spain Xībānyá 西班牙
The Netherlands Hélán 荷兰
Ireland Aìěrlán 爱尔兰
Japan Rìběn 日本
Canada Jiānádà 加拿大
Germany Déguó 德国
Belarus Bái'èluósī 白俄罗斯
Poland Bōlán 波兰
Portugal Pútáoyá 葡萄牙
Russia Éluósī 俄罗斯
United States Měiguó 美国
Thailand Tàiguó 泰国
Taiwan Táiwān 台湾
Turkey Tǔěrqí 土耳其
Ukraine Wūkèlán 乌克兰
Vietnam Yuènán 越南
Italy Yìdàlì 意大利

There are three trends that have been used to create Chinese names for regions and countries.

The first is a name chosen by the meaning and association of a country in Chinese terms (i.e. how that country was perceived by Chinese people in culture and literature). Almost all places and regions in China are named in this way, as well as China itself (中国), literally - the middle country. The same is true of some Asian regions and countries, such as Japan (日本), whose name consists of the same characters as in Japanese. They literally mean coming from the sun, which alludes to the Japanese cult's association with the sun.[9]

However, the most common method is transliteration, which involves matching similar sounds regardless of the meaning of the characters themselves. Examples of this are the names of countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Italy and Canada.[10] The first character in the word Poland (波兰) stands for wave and the second for land.

The third method is to match a character phonetically or semantically representing the country, and a second character 国 to stand for the country. This group includes: United States (Beautiful Country), United Kingdom (Heroic Country), France (Country of Law).

The exception is the name for Belarus, which in Chinese is 白俄罗斯. The name is a combination of the words white and Russia, which corresponds to the country's name in Belarusian (Белару́сь).


  1. "Web Translation Projects - Wikiversity". en.wikiversity.org. Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  2. "New Chinese Romanization Guidelines". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  3. "Western Brand Brand Names in China". The Cultural Chronicles. Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  4. "Western Brand Brand Names in China". The Cultural Chronicles. Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  5. "Localization of Brand Names for the Chinese Market". Kwintessential. 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  6. nationsonline.org, klaus kästle-. "List of country names in Chinese - Nations Online Project". www.nationsonline.org. Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  7. "MDBG English to Chinese dictionary". www.mdbg.net (in Chinese). Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  8. "Localization of Brand Names for the Chinese Market". Kwintessential. 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  9. "Western Brand Brand Names in China". The Cultural Chronicles. Retrieved 2021-05-29.
  10. "DocumentCloud". www.documentcloud.org. Retrieved 2021-05-29.