YellowBridge Chinese Language & Culture
Chinese Language Center

Humor Lost in Chinese Translation

YellowTipTranslating between two languages is never easy but translating to Chinese has an additional peril that other languages don't have. The Chinese language can be said to be composed of monosyllabic words and compound words consisting of one or more such monosyllabic words. Therefore, every writable utterance is a word with at least one meaning and often more, depending on the context. When a foreign company wants to introduce a new product into the Chinese market, it has two choices. It can take the easy way out by simply translating the meaning of the name or coming with an entirely new name. However, most companies like the idea of global branding so they prefer to come up with a name which is phonetically close to the original name. But in doing so, they must make sure that the characters (words) chosen are not just a jumbled mismatch. In fact, they must choose a name that is relevant and has a positive connotation. But that is not enough. Because all non-compound words are monosyllabic, there are a lot of homonyms. Hence even if the companies have been careful about selecting words with just the right meaning, the listener could actually hear or parse the name differently than intended, as the following examples of real-life events demonstrate.

Things don't always go better with Coke

Coca Cola's first version of its Chinese name was different from the one it presently uses. Unfortunately, the Company found the people interpreted its first choice as "Bite the wax tadpole []" or "Female horse stuffed with wax", depending on the dialect. Coke then settled with Ke Kou Ke Le [] , which translates literally as "tasty, can make you happy" or very loosely as "so mouth-watering it makes you happy."

Pepsi didn't fare much later with the translation of its "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" slogan. In Taiwan, it became "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."*

The KFC slogan "Finger- lickin' good" was interpreted as "Eat your fingers off.*"

And Americans talk about the inscrutable Asians?

*If you know the actual Chinese characters use, please send it to support@yellowbridge.com