Australia is looking towards China and Asia in general for trade and commerce. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two about the need for good translations when entering foreign markets. Indeed, much of the lessons of Allman's article can be applied when dealing with any foreign language market. Getting the right meaning across is vital.
Some people have suggested that the story of the transliteration of 'Coca-Cola' is a myth, but 'Coca-Cola' has not only confirmed it but is enshrined as part of the companies history. So, without further ado, enjoy this fine and funny translation article.
by H.F. Allman,
formerly Legal Counsel in China for The Coca-Cola Company
"Red" had no delusions that all of these people would suddenly become customers for Coca-Cola. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that an ever-increasing number of Chinese would come to like Coca-Cola and -- he was right. Before long, Coca-Cola appeared at the Shanghai Club and the Country Club, both utter British strongholds but frequented by Americans in the community. They convinced the British that Coca-Cola was indeed delicious and refreshing.
It was obvious that the Coca-Cola trademark had to be transliterated into Chinese characters in order to reach the millions in the market. Chinese, both written and spoken, is so completely alien to any European language that the simplest foreign word or term is a tongue twister to the Chinese.
To find the nearest phonetic equivalent to Coca-Cola required a separate Chinese character for each of the four syllables. Out of the 40,000 or so characters there are only about 200 that are pronounced with the sounds we needed and many of these had to be avoided because of their meaning.
While doing the research for four suitable characters we found that a number of shopkeepers had also been looking for Chinese equivalents for "Coca-Cola" but with weird results. Some had made crude signs that were absurd in the extreme, adopting any old group of characters that sounded remotely like "Coca-Cola" without giving a thought as to the meaning of the characters used.
One of these homemade signs sounded like "Coca-Cola" when pronounced but the meaning of the characters came out something like "female horse fastened with wax" and another "bite the wax tadpole". The character for wax, pronounced La, appeared in both signs because that was the sound these untutored sign makers were looking for. Any Chinese reading the signs would recognize them as a crude attempt to make up an arbitrary phonetic combination.
Although we were primarily concerned with the phonetic equivalent of "Coca-Cola", we could not ignore the meaning of the characters, individually and collectively, as the free-wheeling sign makers had done.
The closet Mandarin equivalent to "Coca-Cola" we could find was K'o K'ou K'o Le^. The aspirates (designated by ') are necessary to approximate the English sounds. There is no suitable character pronounced La in Chinese so we compromised on Le^ (joy) which is approximately pronounced ler. We chose the Mandarin because this dialect is spoken by the great majority of Chinese.
Incidentally, Chinese has to be interpreted into English rather than translated, and vice versa. All Chinese characters have more than one meaning but the [four chosen] (depending on context) commonly mean:
K'o = To permit, be able, may, can
K'ou = Mouth, hole, pass, harbor
K'o = as above
Le^ = Joy, to rejoice, to laugh, to be happy
It would seem that the Chinese trademark means to permit mouth to be able to rejoice -- or something palatable from which one derives pleasure.
Not once in ten million times could a company literally pronounce their trademark in English and have the sounds mean something desirable in the Chinese language.
The mainland of China is out of the market indefinitely [not true now, but this was probably written years ago] but fortunately most of the 2,000,000 Chinese in Hong Kong and the 9,000,000 in Taiwan understand Mandarin. Even the 10,000,000 overseas Chinese, who mostly speak Cantonese or Fukienese, realize that K'o K'ou K'o Le^ is the Mandarin Chinese trademark for "Coca-Cola".