Brand name translations – what businesses need to know

Looking to take your brand global? You invested countless time and resources into creating a brand name that personifies your company offering and resonates with English-speaking consumers. Don’t let yourself fall at the first hurdle when trying to break into international markets. Failure to carry out proper research into the cultural and linguistic norms of the market you are rolling out your brand to can result in catastrophic (and often humiliating) consequences.

Brand name translation problems: don’t pull a Pepsi

When Pepsi unveiled their slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” in China, it translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. A zombie apocalypse wasn’t quite the message they were going for, but it’s not hard to see how the translation ended up there.

Here are just a few examples of other well-known brands getting it hilariously wrong:

  • Mercedes Benz also got off on the wrong foot when entering the Chinese market. Their brand name was translated as “Bensi”, or in Chinese: “Rush to die”. Not an ideal name for a car manufacturer who needs to reassure customers that their safety is paramount!
  • KFC was yet another victim to the pitfalls of breaking the Chinese market: their famous slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” was somewhat literally translated to “Eat your fingers off”. Luckily, it didn’t hurt them too much as they are the top fast-food chain in China today.
  • Coca-Cola also rivalled Pepsi’s mishap with their bizarrely wonderful translated brand name “Bite the wax tadpole” in China (I’m sensing a theme here…)
  • Braniff Airlines are no longer flying, but they will be fondly remembered for their 1987 ad campaign “Fly in leather”, which was translated into Spanish as “Vuela en cuero”. This worked fine in most of Latin America, but in Mexico it caused a bit of a stir as the connotation was “Fly naked”.

These examples show that even the big names get it wrong sometimes. Luckily, these companies had enough reputation and global influence to turn things around without too much damage. But if your company is a start-up still finding its feet, getting the translation of your brand name or slogan wrong could end your international foray before it has even begun.

Do I need to translate my brand name?

First things first, you need to establish whether your brand name has any meaning in another language. As we can see from the examples above, it is especially important to check your brand name in Chinese-speaking markets as it is a very tricky language to navigate. This is because one Chinese character can have several meanings, and these meanings can then morph into something completely different when paired with another character.

You may think your brand name is completely harmless with no dictionary definition, but you’d be surprised at the unknown meaning it may have in another language. Here are a few that made us giggle:

  • Barf – a detergent made in Iran. In its country of origin, it has a lovely clean meaning: “snow”. In English-speaking countries, not so much.
  • Siri – Apple’s virtual assistant has a fairly innocuous name in most countries, except Georgia where it is a rather rude word for male genitalia.
  • Fart Bar – a candy bar from Poland, where its name means “lucky bar”. Guess it depends on who you’re standing next to!
  • Pee Cola – a refreshing soda bottled in Ghana, where it translates as “very good cola”. Who’s up for a sip?

Transliteration vs transcription vs transcreation

Once you’ve decided to translate your brand name, there are three main routes you could take:

  1. Transliteration: reproducing the spelling in another language’s script, character by character.
  2. Transcription: reproducing the sound (or phonemes) in another language according to how the name is pronounced.
  3. Transcreation: focusing on the semantics behind the name and trying to recreate the meaning and the brand values behind it in a way that is culturally relevant for the target market.

There is no right or wrong answer here as it depends on what you are aiming to achieve. With both transliteration and transcription however, you need to be careful that the resulting spelling/sound doesn’t have a negative connotation in another language. And unless you hit the jackpot, you are highly likely to end up with a translated brand name that has very little meaning in the target language, and almost certainly no connection to your original brand name meaning.

On the other hand, while transcreation may mean your original brand name is not recognisable cross-culturally as it has essentially been recreated in different languages, it will ensure that you have a culturally and linguistically significant name in all your target markets that effectively reflects your brand image and values to your audience.

Learn more about the differences between translation, transcription and transliteration.

In a nutshell

Global branding is an essential marketing tool of any international company. To avoid a cultural faux pas, brand name translation should be a key consideration when taking your brand overseas. That’s why it is important to work with native-speaking professionals with experience and understanding of both the linguistic and marketing aspects of adapting a brand name, who can help you successfully connect with your target audience while retaining the message behind your brand.

About the author

Sinead Livesey graduated with a First Class Honours degree in French, Spanish and Linguistics from the University of York in 2013. She joined Planet Languages shortly after and is now a senior member of the project management team. Across her multiple client accounts, she coordinates translation, proofreading and typesetting projects, as well as providing in-house expertise in her native and studied languages. Outside of work she enjoys distance running and cycling and completed the 2019 London Marathon to raise funds for the Wessex Cancer Trust.

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