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 he shouted out, surprised: “What the hell is that? A hotel for machines or robots?” 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 Chinese circumstances, 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 raise questions, 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’ve also experienced a deep discontinuity. Traditionally, many names were chosen for auspicious reasons, and most are three characters long, especially business names. For example, in old Hohhot city, three famous names were Dashengkui 大盛魁, Yuanshengde 元盛德 and Tianyide 天义德 but these kinds of names haven’t been in use for a long time. Now if a company chooses a name, unless they specifically want to emphasize tradition or specific characteristics (such as herbal medicine, traditional culture, authentic flavor…) then it is unlikely that they will use a similar three-character structure. Instead they are likely to choose a name with a word like “hall” in it, and add something next to it, as demonstrated by names like “Nature Hall” and “Qianxiang Pavillion”. 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 – after all, “Apple” is currently one of the most influential brand names
Unlike what happens in Japan or the West, it is uncommon for Chinese people to use first or family names for stores, companies or brand names – though this is not to say that it never happens. A few representative examples that go against this tradition are old names that have been often used, 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 company name 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 name is quite rare, not because it is forbidden but simply because it is not something that the Chinese mindset is accustomed to. Especially during this period of growth in the creative industries, a name like ‘Mr Ye’s workshop’ (叶茂中工作室) does not give a feeling of modernity. The only exception is probably for a few special places — especially college and university buildings: even though it is uncommon elsewhere, colleges buildings are often named after donors, although this is an unspoken convention.
Westerners still use another type of names, that is names made up only for the sound of their syllables, but which have no special meaning (and can’t have a derogatory one), in other words, purely abstract names. The most famous is Kodak, which mimicks 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, because, as the popular legend says, the reason nazis never became popular in Sweden is because the word sounds like ‘little pig’ in Swedish. The company we know as Enron was originally going to be named Enteron, but when the Wall Street Journal put forward that te word ‘Enteron’ meant ‘intestine’ in Ancient Greek, they immediately made a change. In China, many names will have unfortunate homophonic associations, but that is generally not due to concerns about the change of meaning across different cultures, but rather to the different kinds of associations that come up from certain syllable combinations due to the nature of the Chinese language itself – for instance, the owner of the ‘Jianren hotel’ – healthy benevolence – probably didn’t think hard enough, and realise ‘Jianren’ would also be read as ‘slut hotel’. As for the use of meaningless syllable combinations, in China’s social context, it is not about cultural ambiguity, but in order to conceal their origins, like ‘Metersbrown’.
These ‘signs with Chinese characteristics’ actually come from a rather recent tradition. Today, in every town and city of China, you will easily find board with the words ‘King’, ‘Lord’, ‘Imperial’, ‘Emperor’, ‘Royal’, etc, even for places selling kitchenware. Names like ‘imperial tribute liquor’ or ‘imperial tribute tangerines’ are also very common. The ‘Three yellow chicken’ (三黄鸡) franchise also uses the word ‘Emperor’, and a fake Adidas brand, cutting down the second half of the word, became ‘Adi-duke’, which sounded more impressive than the original. Sometimes, we can sympathize with these poor fellows who lack imagination, and can’t think of any way to prop themselves up but use these few magic words. A few years ago, in a small desert town of 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’. Zhu Yuanzhang had forbidden the use of the words ‘Emperor’, ‘King’, ‘Duke’ and ‘Saint’ by the common people, but today, they’re coming in a flood, at least on the signs. This is not unlike what happened in the United States a hundred years ago — at the time, toilets were branded with imposing name, such as ‘Primo’, ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Empire’.
We’re not asying this in order to ridicule small-town entrepreneurs, because first-tier cities are not necessarily any better: everyone tries to bring themselves up, they only do it in different ways – 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. The book ‘On style’ mocks American property developers who give new developments pompous British names, such as ‘Nottingham Oak Manor’, in order to attract more middle-class buyers, and hide their vulgarity. — So we might say that this trend is just part of human nature, and has nothing to do with Chinese characteristics.
Source : Douban, 15 November 2012