Lost in translation? Naming your company in Asia

By Ethan Rouen, contributor


FORTUNE -- Naming a law firm Plentiful Knowledge and Victorious in Our Pursuit of Gold may come across as a bit boastful in the United States. Even as a motto, it sounds brazen and egotistical.

But in Asia, where names often have multiple meanings, the way a company identifies itself can be vital to its success. On the other hand, the slightest mistranslation or mispronunciation could lead to disaster, as the U.S. law firm Kobre & Kim LLP, whose Chinese name translates to the claim above, learned when it decided to expand into Hong Kong in 2010.

"A Chinese speaking partner at the Hong Kong office of another American law firm complimented our choice of name, and warned that more firms should put thought into their name, giving an example of one poorly translated name that could be read by native Chinese speakers to mean 'garbage pile,'" says William McGovern, the firm's managing partner in Hong Kong. "We obviously are happy to have avoided that outcome."

As companies expand into Asia, where languages vary by region, and pronunciation can mean the difference between a gentle compliment and a damning insult, firms are giving more thought to how they are identified abroad. Although English often serves as the international business language for negotiations, advertising and even business cards, a powerful name in a native language can be as critical as the services a firm is offering.

When Kobre & Kim started shopping for stationers to print their business cards, which are in English and Chinese in Hong Kong, they knew the time had come to choose a name. The company wanted to preserve the names of its founding partners while making sure there was no possibility of insult.

Making matters more difficult, Mandarin is the primary language for most of mainland China, but Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, so the company had to find a name that sang in both dialects.

The "Kim" part of Kobre & Kim was easy because the Chinese symbol in both languages means "gold." It was Kobre that provided the challenge.

"We found some combinations that resulted in impolite meanings, but ultimately came up with two strong candidates," McGovern says.

The first choice translated to "tall cypress" (the cypress represents abundance in China), but a slight mispronunciation resulted in the word "white." Rather than risk the misunderstanding, the firm went with its second choice, which means "possesses wide knowledge."

Kobre & Kim relied on native speaking employees, their families in China and a few trusted professors at the Yale-China Chinese Language Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong for advice.

Reaching out to advisors with a deep understanding of the language is a safe way to avoid embarrassment, but going straight to the source also works.

When Louis Houdart planned to open a chain of chic urban flower shops in Shanghai in 2006, he knew that an English name would capture the stores' international flare, but the Chinese name is what would roll off the tongues of every floraphile.

After a bit of market research, Secret Garden came out as the clear winner for the English name, but the Chinese name proved more elusive.

"Naturally, we thought about Mimi Huadian, which is the exact translation," says Houdart, who went on to open six shops before selling the business. "While Secret Garden sounded to us and to the people we talked to as quite premium, the exact translation sounded very cheesy."

He said that, like every other entrepreneur moving into China, he had three choices: a direct Chinese translation, a phonetic transliteration or a completely different name.

Houdart spent hours at a Shanghai Starbucks (SBUX, Fortune 500) soliciting suggestions. Why Starbucks? He figured an audience willing to pay a premium for coffee in an upscale environment would offer accurate opinions on a flower shop looking to provide a similar shopping experience.

He interviewed more than 100 people before deciding on An Xiang as the Chinese name. In Mandarin, not only does the name sound like music, it also has a double meaning. It is the name of a famous Chinese poem, and, although there is no accurate translation into English, it roughly means dark fragrance.

"A bad Chinese name can really kill your brand," says Houdart, who now works as a branding consultant. "An Xiang just sounds super good in Chinese, and we continue to get so much positive feedback from clients."

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the fact that Houdart and Kobre & Kim's brands were primarily unknown entities in Asia gave them an advantage. When a company with an established international brand crosses the Pacific, managers can only hope that that which they call a rose in their own tongue will smell (and sound) just as sweet in others.

Dow Jones got lucky, says James McGregor, who served as the company's chief executive in China from 1994 to 2000.

"We used the Dao character as our logo, which was a wonderful happenstance because we were able to wrap ourselves in the meaning of that character, which stands for character, integrity and being ethical," says McGregor, who is the author of One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China and senior counselor at APCO Worldwide.

While companies like Dow Jones and Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500), whose name translates into the oldest form of Chinese writing, found fortune in translation, others, McGregor said, can get stuck with whatever the people name them.

"Many companies don't have much choice on what they name themselves in China, especially old companies that have been around for many years," McGregor says. "In many cases, the Chinese media just make up transliterated names for them and they stuck." To top of page