Standard Chartered needs a better Chinese name

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 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 — + “person,” or “pleasant.” (The word is pretty old-fashioned, but I’m doing my damnedest to bring it back.) 可口 – that is, + “mouth” – means “tasty” or more literally “pleasing to the mouth.” 可乐 – + “(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.)

Comments (26)

  1. ShenZhen Joe wrote::

    Is the USA an APEC member? I’m a HK permanent resident and have an APEC Business Travel Card. With it, I’m able to enter China VISA-free with just my Canadian passport. I’ve got the APEC card via the HK govt., since I’m a HK resident. I didn’t attempt to apply through the Canadian Govt., also an APEC member country. As an American (another APEC member?) you can try this to get this card and avoid those painful fart n’ dash trips to HK from Beijing.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 6:07 am #
  2. Great post Brendan. The Coca-Cola translit always bothered me. I realize meaning-wise it’s quite fitting and well done… but with 50,000 characters to choose from… couldn’t they have found one that made the pronunciation more like:

    Best of luck with the trip to HK and in the new job.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 8:34 am #
  3. Jeff wrote::

    I always wondered why KFC was 肯德基 instead of 肯德鸡. someone explained to me once that it sounds better, i think.

    I asked my wife once if KPMG where I work had a good sounding chinese name – 毕马威, and she said no! it sounds like 弼马温,which was the office of horse watcher given to Sun Wukong as punishment. I’m still not sure why they chose that name.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 10:14 am #
  4. William wrote::

    I thought Citibank being called 花旗银行 was because of the Stars & Stripes flag?

    Standard Chartered are a bit stuck – they can’t very well operate with two different Chinese-language names.

    But look at the case of Snickers bars harmonizing their name in Europe – previously they were called “Marathon” in UK + Ireland (presumably after the distance you would need to run to burn off all the calories one would give you), but after a few initial giggles about the harmonised “Snickers” name, people quickly got used to it.

    Same with banks. A lot of them actually have funny-sounding names if you think about it. Wells Fargo. Citibank if you pronounce the first consonant slightly wrong. But nobody finds them at all weird any more.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 5:45 pm #
  5. Chubby wrote::

    The other day I bought a pack of GLAD plastic bags from the super market. And their Chinese name is also “佳能“ Not sure how this will sit with Canon people.

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 1:56 am #
  6. Lili wrote::

    Also, the Goldman Sach 高盛 (tall and victorious) vs. Morgan Stanley 摩根士丹利 (to massage the root – stanley, also sounds like root of evil – stanley)…
    not so auspicious

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 2:51 am #
  7. poagao wrote::

    Jeff, maybe it’s the same (admittedly urban-legendary) reason that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to “KFC” i.e. “it’s not actually chicken.”

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 1:23 pm #
  8. Mark wrote::

    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.

    No wonder tourists from the mainland have such a reputation.

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 5:51 pm #
  9. lfc wrote::

    “In the cases of HSBC and the Bank of CENTRAL Asia”


    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 6:34 pm #
  10. Pandapassport wrote::

    my favorite was for I-pod.
    I think nowadays everyone pretty much says i-pod. But I recall reading somewhere that many chinese people were using the characters 易破的 to write ipod. This was as a result of I-pod not choosing an official chinese name.

    But the improvised chinese one is, of course, a bit odd – having the 易 from 容易 (easy) and 破 (broken).

    yi po de = easily broken?

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 2:07 pm #
  11. kastner wrote::

    i find how Citibank chinese name came from, see this


    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 11:31 pm #
  12. kastner wrote::

    yeah, i like 平宪银行 this name!

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 11:33 pm #
  13. suifeng wrote::

    why 平宪银行 for citibank?

    Sunday, April 8, 2007 at 12:38 am #
  14. Jenn wrote::

    I know Coke’s name is clever and has good meaning, but it still bothers me that it is 可口 and not 口可.

    But I know Chinese people love it, with all their special holiday text messages like:

    生日快乐, 饭菜可口, 事事可乐, 可口可乐!

    天天“娃哈哈”,月月“乐百氏”, 年年”高了高”

    So I guess that’s all that matters for marketing purposes.

    Sunday, April 8, 2007 at 10:22 am #
  15. Jay wrote::

    肯德基 and 肯德鸡 both sound like Kentucky in Mandarin, but in the Cantonese the 基 sounds like ‘gay’ while 鸡 sounds like ‘guy’ …. haha, gay guy. Anyway, since the net result is that 肯德基 sounds more like ‘kentucky’ in Cantonese, I guess they went with the former.

    Sunday, April 8, 2007 at 10:38 am #
  16. Lan wrote::

    My understanding is that F-visas for U.S. citizens issued in Hong Kong, or the U.S. have the 90-day period enforced. Same visas issued from other areas do not have this enforced. (No this is not documented on any official website)

    I had as such F-visa for 2006 and never left the mainland for 10 months. After that I happened to make a couple trips to HK and on the second run the immigration guy gave me a followup question of when I last entered China and I claimed amnesia. Subsequent reentries they were all chirpy.

    I now have a 6 month F and will probably go next for having an agency in Shanghai issuing it from who knows where.

    Interestingly, Europeans on the same F-visa issued from Hong Kong have a longer period and laxer enforcement.

    Apologies if this goes off-topic too much, but other’s with experience in all this, would be interesting to hear.

    I personally have black-listed Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Evil capitalists pick you to death with little surcharges.

    Sunday, April 8, 2007 at 10:35 pm #
  17. range wrote::

    Very interesting post about the Chinese names of companies and banks.

    I know about visa runs, we are actually doing the process all over again since we changed jobs. We are thinking about getting student visas, since both my wife and I are going back to school fulltime in September.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 12:00 am #
  18. Laska wrote::

    Great post!
    This Shanghai visa consultant used to offer a service removing the restriction: You can get the guy’s cell phone number off the website. His name is “magic.” He is very knowledgeable.

    Have you tried getting the restriction removed yourself? My feeling is that a chopped letter from a company saying that your fangwen is going to last more than 90 days would be enough to do the trick. Definitely worth a try.

    When you go to HK, try staying on Lamma Island. It was cheap and fun.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 1:24 pm #
  19. Larry wrote::

    I think 渣打 should be pronounced Zha1da2. 打 (Da2) here has the same pronunciation as in 一打 (Yi4da2, a dozen).

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 2:16 pm #
  20. Nick wrote::

    According to my technical writing textbook, Coca Cola originally went with ‘Ke Kou Ke La’ and only later found out the characters they had chosen meant ‘Bite the wax tadpole.’ 可口蝌蜡?

    Thursday, April 26, 2007 at 3:44 am #
  21. Kaisa wrote::

    I don’t think Nokia’s transliteration is meaningless… I have actually met the guy who came up with the Chinese version and he explained that it means something like “promise to bring happiness/wealth to Asia”. The direct translation would be “promise to base in Asia”. And it would be difficult to translate the name anyways, as it is just the name of a small town in Finland. (Yes, Nokia is Finnish, not Swedish or Japanese)

    Friday, April 27, 2007 at 9:22 pm #
  22. Hi, Kaisa —

    Thanks for the comment. The literal meaning of the characters for Nokia is, indeed, “promise — base — Asia,” but all three characters are used so frequently for purposes of transliteration that the immediate response of someone seeing the name would be to assume that the characters are being used for their phonetic – rather than semantic – values. It is possible to read them as a sentence, but it wouldn’t be natural to do so.

    Saturday, April 28, 2007 at 5:50 pm #
  23. Kaisa wrote::

    Yes, I agree that the sentence sounds really silly when translated.

    I like your blog, you have great stuff here. Keep up the good work :)

    Sunday, April 29, 2007 at 5:00 pm #
  24. Thestral wrote::

    我也喜欢平宪这个翻译 真没想到能用这两个字

    Sunday, July 8, 2007 at 1:51 pm #
  25. Tom @ SCB wrote::

    Interest post about SCB’s Chinese name. I’m a staff in Standard Chartered (Beijing branch) and I do agree with your opinion.

    I believe SCB’s Chinese translation was derived from Catonese pronounciation. I spent four years in HK for my university and I really hold qualified attitude regarding this language…

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 1:11 pm #
  26. asdjj wrote::

    It’s Cantonese tradition to give a foreign entity a very bad transliteration. Like Rogers, they call it 罗渣士 , almost looks like dreg or scum is their favourate. And they have Dundas 登打士 (Step on and beat , ..soo violent); And they have some bakery in toronto called Goulster something, they named it 告罗世打饼店,”Suiting luoshida bakery..” eh ? Who won ? Anyway, stupid

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 12:10 am #

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