I’m getting ready to go to Hong Kong for a couple of days for visa reasons — not the usual visa run, as I’ll explain later — but first a quick post:
At my soon-to-be-former job today, we did a report on the four foreign banks — Citibank, HSBC, Bank of East Asia, and Standard Chartered — that just started operating inside China. This is newsworthy because foreign banks had formerly been limited in terms of what they could provide, but are now, years after China joined the WTO, finally being permitted to play alongside Chinese banks.
Now, this would be yawn-city for me normally, even though I do hold a grudge against Citibank — they screwed over a friend of mine very badly, and so I go out of my way not to use them whenever I’m back in the States — but for one aspect of the story: the Chinese names of these companies.
In the cases of HSBC and the Bank of East Asia, it’s no surprise that they’ve got Chinese names, being that both are Hong Kong-based banks. Citibank has – I think – been operating in Taiwan for years, so their Chinese name, 花旗银行 (“Flowery Flag Bank”), while having nothing to do with cities (or “citis,” I guess), is pretty unobjectionable. But then there’s Standard Chartered, which has the regrettable Chinese name of 渣打银行, or literally “Slag-hit Bank.”
Now, translating here is just disingenuous: the 渣打 in question is pronounced zhādǎ, which sounds more or less like “chartered,” and the transliteration holds up in Cantonese as well. But there are good transliterations and bad transliterations, and this is a distinctly bad transliteration.
The all-time best Chinese transliteration of an English product name has got to be Coca-Cola, or 可口可乐 Kěkǒu-Kělè as it’s known in these parts. 可 kě on its own means “may;” when it’s partnered with a verb, it’s something like “conducive to,” and when it precedes a noun, sometimes, it’s “pleasing to,” as in the term 可人 — kě + “person,” or “pleasant.” (The word is pretty old-fashioned, but I’m doing my damnedest to bring it back.) 可口 – that is, kě + “mouth” – means “tasty” or more literally “pleasing to the mouth.” 可乐 – kě + “(to be) happy” – means something like “conducive to happiness.” So a philologist would translate the Chinese name for Coca-Cola as “pleasing to the mouth [and] conducive to happiness,” or, more colloquially, “Tasty-Happy.”
(Pepsi is 百事可乐, “Hundred [i.e. “lots” or “all”] Events Happy,” but I don’t drink Pepsi.)
Another great example of Chinese transliteration, ironically, is Enron., whose name on the Mainland – 安然 Ānrán – means “Securely.” Har har har.
Now, not everybody can get a transliterated name that means something, but they can at least pick characters with good associations: Hewlett-Packard is 惠普 Huì-Pǔ, which does not in and of itself mean anything, but is composed of characters meaning “benevolence, favor” and “to spread.” Canon is 佳能 Jiānéng, a transliteration (by way of Cantonese, in which the name is pronounced Gaai-nahng) that would translate literally to “Superior Ability.” Amway is 安利 Ānlì, “secure” + “benefit.”
Companies can also pick transliterated names that don’t really conjure up any specific mental image. Nokia is 诺基亚 Nuòjīyà, a meaningless transliteration. Likewise 摩托罗拉 Mótuōluólā, or Motorola, and 戴尔 Dài’ěr, or Dell.
But then you have the case of Standard Chartered’s 渣打 Zhādǎ. Zhā on its own means “slag, sediment, residue, dregs.” It occurs in words like 人渣 rénzhā, “the scum of humanity,” 渣滓 zhāzǐ “crud,” and, in Beijing slang, 土得掉渣儿 tǔ de diàozhār “such a hick you could see the manure flaking off him.” Not a word you want in your company’s name.
And then there’s the sound of Zhādǎ, which is presumably the whole reason it was picked. It’s kind of like “Chartered,” sure, but it also sounds – to me at least – like one of the onomatopoetic terms that you get here, like 嘎嘣儿 gābengr (“clippity-cloppity”).
Anyway — it is a thoroughly lousy name. Perhaps something like 平宪银行 would be better?
In other news, I’m going to Hong Kong tomorrow for visa reasons, like I said. It’s not your standard visa run — I’m on a two-year F visa that won’t run out until early 2009. The problem is that it’s divided into 90-day terms, so once every three months I have to leave the country. (The NYC Consulate apparently finds this kind of thing very funny. They’ve done it to me twice now.)
Hong Kong and Macau count as seperate countries for visa purposes, so basically I could just cross the border, break wind, and head back to Beijing and I’d be all set. I’ve got a couple of days off before my new job starts, though, and so I’ll be taking in some of the sights of Hong Kong – a city I know nothing about – and getting a suit made in preparation for my new gig.
(And I know what Thoreau said about enterprises requiring suits, but hey. The money’s right and it’s going to be a cool job.)