Should Company Names Be Translated? Translation Theory in Practice

by OFER TIROSH 23/06/2022
Should Company Names Be Translated? Translation Theory in Practice

Should company names be translated? It’s a question that companies have to grapple with when they decide to take their brand from local to international. It can also be a head-scratcher for translators whose clients want to take their business abroad.

Today, I want to explore what’s involved in translating company names. I’ll look at the options for translators dealing with company name translation, along with a few examples of where brand translation has worked well.

Should Company Names Be Translated? How to Decide

A whole heap of factors come into play when you’re faced with translating company names. As such, there’s no definitive answer on whether company names should be translated. It’s a question of looking at the individual brand, the target market, the kind of document you’re working on and more.

If you’re faced with translating company names, the following tips should help.

Ask Your Client How to Translate Their Company Name

Clearly, this is a good starting point. If you provide business translation solutions, then you’ll be used to the importance of effective dialogue with your clients. Ask for their view on how to translate their company name and be ready to debate the options with them (see below for details of those options).

Encourage Market Research

If time allows, supporting your client to undertake market research in the target market/language can produce valuable insights into whether brand translation would be appropriate or not. 

Think About the Target Audience

It’s also important to think about the target audience. Is the company targeting a market where foreign-sounding names are considered cool or not? If you’re working for a translation services company, it’s worth checking with them for guidance on this point. They will likely have plenty of experience to share when it comes to translating company names.

Translation services company Tomedes is a good example of this. The company name comes from an extinct language, giving it an exotic feel while not attributing any meaning in its target markets. The name Tomedes is also easy to pronounce and remember, meaning it wins on all fronts with foreign audiences. 

Consider the Script

The scripts you’re working with are another consideration. Say you’re translating from Russian to English. If you’re writing in English but then keep a company name as Газпром (for example), very few readers will understand what you mean. Write Gazprom instead and your readers will understand instantly.

Options for Translating Company Names

If you need to translate a company name, you have a range of options available to you. You can discuss these with your client and decide on the best approach.

Localized Brand Name

A localized brand name is when you translate a company name to something suitable in the target country, using localization services to better connect with customers there.

Do This When…

…you have a client who wants to establish themselves in another country but whose name is unsuitable there. Reasons could include:

  • A company with that name already exists in the target market.
  • The company name means something rude, unpleasant or otherwise unsuitable in the target country.

 

Companies That Localized Their Brand Name 

There are plenty of examples of companies that have localized their brand names. Burger King, for example, is known as Hungry Jack’s in Australia. That’s because, when the firm arrived in Australia in 1971, the country was already home to a local burger joint called Burger King. The franchisee of the international Burger King brand thus adopted the friendly, local ‘Hungry Jack’s’ name.

Bing is another example. The popular search engine from Microsoft would have most closely translated into the Chinese character 病. However, that means ‘illness’ – hardly a term that was likely to win over a larger userbase for Bing. As such, Bing was localized to 必应 (bì yìng), meaning ‘must answer’ – a far more acceptable, localized brand name.

Transliteration                

If you’re helping a company to transliterate its brand name into another language, then you’ll need to create a name that sounds like the original or is spelled like it.

Do This When…

…you want to stay faithful to the original brand name but:

  • It’s impossible to translate directly, perhaps due to the target language using a different writing system.
  • Using the same name would mean something inappropriate or unsuitable in the target language. Canadian Mist whisky, for example, didn’t fare well in Germany, where ‘mist’ means ‘manure’.

 

Companies That Have Used Transliteration 

Many companies have dealt with the need to translate their company name by using transliteration. One famous example is Adidas, which is known as 阿迪达斯 (Ādídásī) in China. While the name doesn’t mean anything in Chinese, its pronunciation is very similar to the original.

Another company that has used transliteration in China is Coca-Cola. After an initial attempt to translate the company name delivered a meaning of ‘bite the wax tadpole’, the brand settled on the far more suitable 可口可乐 (kě kǒu kě lè), meaning ‘to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice’.

Transcreation

Unlike transliteration, which focuses on keeping the sound or spelling of the company name the same, if you’re working on translating company names using transcreation, it should be the meaning of the name that is your top priority. You can read more about what’s involved in transcreation by clicking the link below.

Read more: What Is Transcreation?

Do This When…

…you want to keep the spirit of the brand alive but the company isn’t precious about the name itself. This could be suitable when:

  • The original company name would have little or no meaning in the target market.
  • The name would mean something unsuitable.
  • The name is used by another company already.

 

Companies That Used Transcreation  

One well-known example of a company that has used transcreation well is Volkswagen. Volkswagen is called 大众汽车 (Dàzhòng qìchē) in China. The name doesn’t sound anything like the original, but it does carry the same meaning: ‘people’s car’.

Over in Spain, meanwhile, Mitsubishi Motors had to use transcreation and change the name of its Pajero car to Montero, after discovering that the original name meant something rude in Spanish.

Other Brand Translation Considerations

There are other considerations that come into play when you’re asking, should company names be translated?

Firstly, you’ll need to think about how to translate the plc, inc., ltd, s.a., G.m.b.H., A.G., OOO and similar. Each of these has a legal meaning in the original country that likely won’t translate directly to the new market.

Secondly, how will company name translation impact things like the logo? It’s likely that you’ll need to provide your client with desktop publishing services if you’re going to be changing the logo, website and marketing materials.

Thirdly, what about jingles? Haribo is one brand that has cleverly translated its catchy jingle into other languages while sticking with the original tune, using transcreation to deliver an international brand that also resonates with local audiences.

Wrap Up

It is this ability to connect at a local level that ultimately spells success (or otherwise) for brands trying to break into new markets abroad. If you’re providing marketing translation services, then the need to translate a company name will crop up sooner or later. Hopefully the information in this article will help you deal with the situation when the time comes.

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