When companies expand their global reach and scale, it soon becomes apparent that English has its limits as a lingua franca. Sophisticated companies recognize that the monolingual business model is now obsolete.
It is now more crucial than ever that companies adopt multilingual names for a multi-national audience. Establishing a regional name not only demonstrates cultural sensitivity and fluency, but also ensures global credibility.
Good translation goes beyond the capabilities of Google Translate and factors in social, historical, and cultural nuances of the audience. As a kaleidoscopic language with a rich background, Mandarin Chinese contains a trove of possible names and often poses a challenge for foreign companies.
In this article, Criterion Global provides handy tips for identifying the ideal Mandarin Chinese name for your company by lending striking approaches for translation and ways to exercise both caution and creativity.
BRAINSTORM – Where to begin?
TRANSLITERATION – preserving the phonetic sound of your company name.
A Chinese name can be assembled by plucking out Chinese characters with corresponding sounds, however; this often results in a different (at times, nonsensical) meaning in Chinese and also clearly distinguishes the company as a Western company.
Example – Eng: Google // Chi: 谷歌 [Gǔgē]
The phonetic sound ˈ”go͞ogəl” is preserved, but the reference to googol is lost. Instead, a direct translation of the Chinese name is “valley song”, which isn’t negative, but is also not relevant in any way.
DEFINITION-BASED – preserving the definition of your company name.
Example – Eng: Microsoft // Chi: 微软 [Wēiruǎn]
The two Chinese characters of “micro” and “soft” form the compound word wēiruǎn. Like the original name Micro-Soft, this Chinese name functions as a portmanteau, deriving the first character from the Chinese word for microcomputer, 微电脑 [Wéidiànnǎo], and the second character from the Chinese word for software 软件 [ruǎnjiàn]. 
Companies should recognize that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. For example, BMW opted for the name 寶馬 [Bǎomǎ], which compromises between the philosophy and phonetics of the original brand name. Bǎomǎ translates into “precious horse” or “treasure horse”, evoking a romantic history of travel and also reminiscent of phonetic elements of the company acronym.
[Find out how to refine your name after the cut]
NUANCE – How to Refine?
Due to the four-tone system, Mandarin Chinese abounds with homophones, words with the same pronunciation, but different characters and meanings.
Most Chinese naming faux pas come from being ignorant to corresponding homophones, however; prudent use of homophones can add to your company image. Capitalizing on homophones is a rooted Chinese tradition and savvy use of homophones can also make your company name more memorable.
Example – Eng: Criterion Global // Chi: 冠宇 [guàn yǔ]
Hilariously enough, Guàn yǔ preserves elements of our English name, translating into “top of the universe” and is also phonetically identical to the Chinese god of business, 關羽 [guàn yǔ]. Originally a general in the three-kingdom era, guàn yǔ is universally revered by Chinese businesses as a symbol of trust, the cornerstone of Chinese business values.
* Make sure that your company name doesn’t allude to anything negative by plugging the pinyin of your proposed name into a Chinese dictionary service like Nciku, however; the best precaution is consulting an individual versed in Chinese.
HISTORY + CULTURE
Many naming gaffes result from Chinese words taken out of context so be sure to familiarize yourself with the etymology of the Chinese characters in your proposed name.
Example – The Chinese word 寿 [shou] deceptively translates into “longevity” in English, making it a popular choice for tattoos. However, this specific character for longevity is most commonly used in the context of death and funerals. Compounds of the word abound in burial terminology and are often found on coffins.
The number of strokes it takes to write family names and corporate names is often considered a good indication of fortune. Though, it should be noted that this is a superstitious measure, and that an unlucky stroke number would not count as a stigma. You can determine if your proposed name is auspicious by counting the strokes in the proposed name and utilizing stroke charts like the one below.
Example – Criterion Global’s name 冠宇 [guàn yǔ] is composed of a total of 15 strokes. This corresponds to the Chinese fortune: “Works diligently and humbly. Will have great connections and outside network. Outstanding achievements, lots of business, and big prosperity.” Seems like a good match for our company vision!
 Tones can change depending on how the characters are arranged.
ABOUT US – Criterion Global, 冠宇媒体公司 [guàn yǔ méitǐ gōngsī], is an international media planning and buying consultancy specializing in travel/hospitality, retail, and luxury consumer brands worldwide. With offices in New York City, Miami Beach, and Mumbai, Criterion Global has executed campaigns across 37 different countries.
We look forward to the addition of our Shanghai office, opening in Q1 2014.