A foreign friend came on a trip to China, and saw on the street the name “机械宾馆” translated in English as “Machine Hotel” – and so shouted out, surprised: “What the hell is that? A hotel for machine or robot?” Just next to it, he saw an “Electricity Hotel” – and it was as if an electricity shock went through his whole body.……
Of course, when Chinese people see American “Motor Hotels”, they don’t interpret the name as meaning “hotel for cars”; but explaining the name “Machine Hotel” is not an easy task. Although the translation is satisfactory, for foreigners who don’t really understand the national situation, the actual meaning is quite convoluted – “hotel run by the State-owned work-unit that makes machine equipment” Although in recent years many similar guesthouses have been renamed, it’s still quite common to see “railroad hotels” and “hydro-electic hotels”. For some that have changed their front-sign it is still easy to see through (for example, the ‘Eryi’ hotel 尔谊 was originally named after the second hospital school 二医, also pronounced ‘Eryi’), yet when you get used to the practice, you don’t put it in question, and the name Machine Hotel appears completely normal. In final analysis, the problem is not one of translation, but of understanding the social context, just as the term “Motel” has become associated with a specific hotel franchise in China.
These buildings or brand names represent “Chinese Characteristics”: just as it is with the history of the country, they too have experienced deep divisions. Traditionally, many names were chosen for auspicious reasons, and most are three characters long, especially businesses. For example, in the old Hohhot city, three big names were Dashengkui 大盛魁, Yuanshengde 元盛德 and Tianyide 天义德 and it has been a long time since these kinds of names were seen. Now if a company is choosing a name, unless they specifically want to emphasize tradition or special business characteristic (such as emphasizing herbal medicine, traditional culture, authentic flavor) then it is unlikely that they will use a similar format. Instead the inclination is to choose a name with the word “hall” in it, and add something next to it, as demonstrated by names like “Nature Hall” and “黔香阁”. As far as modern logos are concerned, many use the names of plants and animals such as peony, chrysanthemum, red-headed crane, white elephant – but these, too have become increasingly sparse over the last 20 to 30 years because this kind of mimetic name appears to be rather “earthy”. Of course there is always an exception – afterall, “Apple” is currently one of the most influential brand names
Unlike Western or Japanese practices, it is uncommon for Chinese people to use first or family names for stores, companies or brand names – this is not to say that it never happens. A few representatives that go against this tradition are old names that have been used often, including Wu Liancai 吴良材, Zhang Xiaoquan 张小泉, Chen Dacheng 沈大成. Still, this kind of name is not widespread and has been decreasing in recent years. If you use the name Zhang Family 张氏 or Li Family 李氏, the impression that most Chinese get is of a small family workshop. This kind of names is extremely common in Europe, the US and Japan: Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, these names all come from the founders’. European and American advertising companies almost without exception are named this way, not to mention J. Walter Thompson, Leo Burnett are also becoming commonly seen acronyms (such as BBDO, DDB, TBWA, WPP). Common Japanese brands such as Honda, Toyota are all the same, and there is also Suntory (originally “tori-san”, “Mr. Bird”). Panasonic, before using “Panasonic” was also called “Matsushita”. China very seldom adopts this practice — I only know of a law firm called “Duan & Duan”, sort of similar to “Johnson & Johnson”. Thus, this type of names are quite rare, not because they are forbidden but simply because it is not something that the Chinese mindset is accustomed to. Especially during this period of creative industry 叶茂中工作室 immediately does not have a modern feeling. The only exception is probably a few special places — especially college and university buildings: even though in other places it is uncommon, colleges buildings are often named after donors 倒隐然已是一项不成文的惯例。
Westerners have another type of names, that is names made up only for the sound of their syllables, but with no special meaning (and can’t have a derogatory one), so purely abstract names. The most famous is Kodak, which mimcks the ‘click’ sound made when the camera shutter closes; another is Exxon, of which it is said that linguists checked the 55 most common languages, and confirmed it didn’t have a derogatory meaning in any of them. This is indeed crucial for multinational companies, 因为，据说纳粹之所以在瑞典无法盛行，就是因为nazi在瑞典语里读起来与“小猪”谐音。当年安然公司原定也以Enteron命名，但当《华尔街日报》指出enteron一词源于希腊语“小肠”后，他们立即打消了这个念头。中国的许多命名倒也会顾及谐音的不佳联想，但那通常并不是出于对异文化下含义变化的顾虑，更多的是由于汉语本身的特性容易生发不同联想——比如，“健仁宾馆”的老板想必事先就没好好考虑过。至于那种没有含义的音节组合，在中国的社会语境下，也不是为了跨文化下的歧义，而是为了掩盖自己的出身，诸如“美特斯邦威”。
标志牌上的那些中国特色，大部分其实都是由来不久的新传统。Today, in every town and city of China, you can probably easily find a few signs with the words “King”, “Lord”, “Imperial”, “Emperor”, “Royal”, etc. 大概都不难看到一些带着“王”、“霸”、“皇”、“帝”、“御”字样的标牌，哪怕是厨具也要以此来命名，至于贡酒、贡桔之类也所在多有，连三黄鸡也要用到“皇”字，山寨品牌把“阿迪达斯”切下一半后还要加个“王”字成“阿迪王”，似乎比原品牌更威风。有时也同情我们这些同胞贫乏的想像力，为了拼命突出自己有多好，似乎就只能借助于这些有魔力的字眼了。A few years ago, in a small desert town in the Tarim basin, I found a street where almost every restaurant had a name like “Fried Rice King”, “Friend Noodle King”, or “King of the West”. 朱元璋当初禁止小民用“帝王君圣”之类的字眼取名，如今至少在标志牌上是早已泛滥成灾。这一点倒颇类一百年前的美国——那时美国的马桶广告多打着强劲有力的名号，诸如“第一”（Primo）、“复兴”（Renaissance）或“帝国”（Empire）之类。
We’re not asying this in order to ridicule small-town entrepreneurs, because in face, first-tier cities are not necessarily any better: everyone tries to lift up their own value, only the way to do it differs – to the North of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, you can see real estate developments with names like “Oriental Manhattan”, “Oriental Cambridge”, “Beverly Hills” or “Clear Water Bay” everywhere. 《格调》一书中嘲笑美国的房地产开发商在郊区“标上令人震惊的英国地名”，诸如“诺丁汉橡树庄园”之类，”in order to attract more middle-class buyers”, and cover their vulgarity. ——说起来这也算人之常情，都谈不上多少中国特色了。
Source : Douban, 15 November 2012