Chinese look at names very seriously. Because names have meanings, we want names that are simple, meaningful, and appropriate. This attitude is best described by Confucius who once said, “If the name is not correct, the words will not ring true (名不正则言不顺)”.
Any foreign company entering China must face the task of finding a good Chinese name. There are generally three methods that a company can employ.
No translation. This happens usually when a name is very short and easy to pronounce. For example, IBM uses the same name in China and it’s official Chinese website is also IBM.com, which detects the geo location of users in China and displays Chinese content to them. Another example is 3M, which uses 3M.com.cn as its official website but also owns 3M.cn.
Translation by sound. An example is Google, which is translated to 谷歌 (Gu Ge = the song of harvest). The name indicates a hard working, down to earth attitude. Google’s official website is Google.com.hk but it also owns Guge.cn. Another example is Yahoo which prefers the name 雅虎 (Ya Hu = elegant tiger). Yahoo’s official website is Yahoo.com but it does not own Yahu.cn. Both Guge and Yahu are 2-pin, which is commonly used by Chinese companies. Also, both names do not tell you anything about their business.
Translation by meaning. Apple is a good example. In China, it is directly translated to the Chinese characters 苹果 (Ping Guo = apple). Its official website is Apple.com but it does not own Pingguo.cn. Another example is Microsoft, which uses the Chinese name 微软 (Wei Ruan = micro soft). Its official website is Microsoft.com but it does not own Weiruan.cn. Again, both examples here use 2-pin, indicating its wide popularity in China.
Looking at these examples, I think foreign companies in China should, if possible, also secure the .cn doman name matching their Chinese names for brand protection.
What about companies which have not entered China? Then, you can see all sorts of funny translations. For example, Facebook does not have an official Chinese name, but an unofficial, phonetic translation circulating in China is 非死不可 (Fei Si Bu Ke = have to die). This is not something you want your Chinese users to remember.
So, what is my favorite translation? Definitely Coca-Cola! It’s a household name which I grew up with. Its Chinese name 可口可乐 (delicious and fun) used to make me thirsty for the soft drink whenever I heard the name. But, the name has come a long way. When Coca-Cola entered China in 1928, it was translated as 蝌蚪啃蜡 (Ke Dou Ken La = bite the wax tadpole), a terrible name which is difficult to pronounce and understand. The next year, the company ran a contest and the prize went to a British professor living in Shanghai. His beautiful translation has since been well known throughout all Chinese communities.