One interesting facet of Chinese is how they render western words in Chinese. Translating things like product names can be difficult, because you have to transliterate the sound of the words into Chinese as best you can, but the words should also have some kind of relevant meaning.
Before Coca Cola was first introduced to China, shopkeepers selling imported Coke had little idea of how English worked, and just wanted to render the sound in Chinese. So they’d pick any old characters that resembled the sound of the original name. This came out as “kekou kela”, but unfortunately literal translations (depending on the tones used) came out as “bite the wax tadpole”, “female horse stuffed with wax”, or similar. Funny, but probably pretty confusing (and not that appetising) for a Chinese person.
Obviously this wouldn’t do for Coca Cola, so they worked out a much better transliteration when they officially introduced their product to China – kěkǒu kělè (可口可乐). This literally means “tasty happy”, or more idiomatically “tasty happiness”.
Kěkǒu (可口) does mean “tasty”, but it’s very rarely used, since “hǎochī” (好吃, literally “good to eat”) is much more common.
Funnily enough, Coca Cola’s own marketing literature disagrees with itself: the image above of a Coca Cola label shows that it means “delicious happiness”, but their archivist’s blog divides the syllables up differently, claiming it means “permit your mouth to be happy”.
Either way, it’s pretty cool to me that they were able to get some kind of relevant translation and still make it sound recognisable in Mandarin.
Sometimes this can’t be done, with some companies just straight up translating their product name into Mandarin – a good example of this is Apple, who go by “Píngguǒ” (苹果) in China, which simply means “an apple”.
Some companies are stuck somewhere in the middle, like McDonalds. McDonalds is known here as Màidāngláo (麦当劳), which sounds about as close as you’re going to get using the phonemes available in Mandarin. However, as far as I can make out, it doesn’t mean much. 麦 (mài) means “wheat” or “oat”, 当 (dāng) means a whole bunch of things, most commonly the verb to “be” as in “to work as” (e.g. 我当老师 – “Wǒ dāng lǎoshī” – “I am a teacher”). The last character, 劳 (láo) means “work” or “labour”. So… “wheat works as work”? I’m calling bullshit on this one.
Starbucks is “Xīngbakè” (星巴克), which is pretty good since 星 means “star” and 巴克 is the Chinese transliteration for “buck” (as in the slang word for a dollar).
I find all of this pretty interesting, and as my Chinese teacher says almost every lesson – always with the same massive grin on her face – “interesting is the best teacher!”. Next time I need to ask somebody to bite a wax tadpole, I’m fully prepared.