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There’s no such thing as a second first impression, and brand identity forms a key part of any business’ capital. Any business looking to expand into foreign jurisdictions should carefully consider how to represent its trade marks.

Translation is ultimately a balancing exercise. On one hand, customers are likely to pronounce and remember native language versions of a trade mark with greater ease than their English equivalents, which saves time on building brand awareness. On the other, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic transpositions are risky and require an understanding of both the business and the local market to be effective.

translation, transliteration or phonetic equivalence

There are three ways to create a foreign-language version of a trade mark: translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalence.

Translation

Translation is the conversion of the meaning behind the words in one language to the equivalent meaning word written in the script of the foreign language. For example, Apple uses the trade mark 苹果 in China, which means ‘Apple’ in Mandarin. This is very useful when the trade mark is an existing word with a known meaning.

Transliteration

From an English perspective, transliteration is the use of Roman characters to phonetically spell the foreign translated word, so individuals that don’t know how to read the script are able to pronounce the translation. This is useful in countries with a non-Roman script, such as China, Russia, UAE (and other Arabic countries), and Japan. It ensures that those who do not know how to read the local script can still pronounce the local translation. For example, the transliteration of 苹果 (Apple) is ‘Ping Guo.’

The meaning of the Translation and the Transliteration is identical in the foreign language as they merely relate to the visual way the word is written (translation) and the phonetic way the translation is pronounced (transliteration). Accordingly, protecting the transliteration of your trade mark is also very useful when the trade mark is an existing word with a known meaning.

However, where the trade mark is a unique or coined word/phrase without any literal meaning, then neither a translation nor a transliteration of the trade mark is of assistance as there is no direct translation.  If there is no translation, one doesn’t have a translation from which the transliteration can be formed.

So how do you protect a unique or coined word/phrase in a foreign script?  This is where the third way to create a foreign-language version of a trade mark is useful.

Phonetic Equivalence

Not every trademark has a readily identifiable meaning like ‘Apple’ that can be translated and transliterated.  In this situation, or where a mark already has name recognition in other countries, it can be preferable to create a mark in the local language that sounds like the mark in English.  For example, ‘Audi’ is known as ‘Ao Di’ (奥迪), and ‘Chanel’ ‘Xiang Nai Er’ (香奈儿) in China.

To create the phonetic equivalent, the foreign script is used to create a word(s) that sounds the same as the English word when pronounced by the local people. Therefore, when the foreign script is read, it sounds the same as (or very similar to) the English pronunciation of the word. However, it almost never translates to the English meaning, but rather an alternate meaning is now being associated with the brand.

lost in translation

Translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalents are not a simple process, and businesses that fail to consider the meaning or connotation of words in a local context risk embarrassing results.

Indeed, brand history is brimming with tales of translation gone awry.

In 2018, Audi launched an electric SUV named ‘e-tron’, which had a lovely ring to it in English.  However, sales in France were difficult as consumers were reluctant to sit in a turd (being the meaning of the French phonetic equivalent, ‘étron’). Similarly, Hunt-Wesson Foods marketed their line of ‘Big John’ products in Quebec as ‘Gros Jos’, which was unfortunately French-Canadian slang for ‘big boobs.’

Even well-oiled IP machines like Coca-Cola can be caught out, as the phonetic equivalent Chinese characters originally used to represent Coca-Cola had a meaning in Mandarin of ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’, depending on the dialect. Not quite the message that would inspire local Chinese to “taste the feeling”!

So how can you ensure the phonetic equivalent used for your unique/coined word/phrase isn’t associating an unwanted image/meaning with your brand?  The only way is to work with an experienced trade mark attorney that can provide you with multiple phonetic equivalent options and their meanings.  When this approach is taken, the result is very often a delicious outcome.

In doing this, Coca-Cola was able to ultimately settle on ‘Ke Kou Ke Le’ (可口可) in China, which translates to ‘tasty and happy’. While IKEA, known as ‘Yi Jia’ (宜家) in China, has aspects of both phonetic equivalence and translation, as the phrase means ‘comfortable home’ in Mandarin.

meaning matters: do your research

If you’re entering a new market that uses a foreign language script, it’s important to work with trade mark experts to determine what your trade mark will look like, sound like and mean, in the local language and how best to protect it. Translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalence are all viable options, depending on what is your trade mark.

The Macpherson Kelley IP team has been helping businesses expand overseas for over 100 years.  Get in touch with one of our experts to ensure you secure appropriate trade mark protection for your business expansion

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What’s in a name: Translating trade marks for overseas markets

22 March 2022
mark metzeling mollie ashworth

There’s no such thing as a second first impression, and brand identity forms a key part of any business’ capital. Any business looking to expand into foreign jurisdictions should carefully consider how to represent its trade marks.

Translation is ultimately a balancing exercise. On one hand, customers are likely to pronounce and remember native language versions of a trade mark with greater ease than their English equivalents, which saves time on building brand awareness. On the other, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic transpositions are risky and require an understanding of both the business and the local market to be effective.

translation, transliteration or phonetic equivalence

There are three ways to create a foreign-language version of a trade mark: translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalence.

Translation

Translation is the conversion of the meaning behind the words in one language to the equivalent meaning word written in the script of the foreign language. For example, Apple uses the trade mark 苹果 in China, which means ‘Apple’ in Mandarin. This is very useful when the trade mark is an existing word with a known meaning.

Transliteration

From an English perspective, transliteration is the use of Roman characters to phonetically spell the foreign translated word, so individuals that don’t know how to read the script are able to pronounce the translation. This is useful in countries with a non-Roman script, such as China, Russia, UAE (and other Arabic countries), and Japan. It ensures that those who do not know how to read the local script can still pronounce the local translation. For example, the transliteration of 苹果 (Apple) is ‘Ping Guo.’

The meaning of the Translation and the Transliteration is identical in the foreign language as they merely relate to the visual way the word is written (translation) and the phonetic way the translation is pronounced (transliteration). Accordingly, protecting the transliteration of your trade mark is also very useful when the trade mark is an existing word with a known meaning.

However, where the trade mark is a unique or coined word/phrase without any literal meaning, then neither a translation nor a transliteration of the trade mark is of assistance as there is no direct translation.  If there is no translation, one doesn’t have a translation from which the transliteration can be formed.

So how do you protect a unique or coined word/phrase in a foreign script?  This is where the third way to create a foreign-language version of a trade mark is useful.

Phonetic Equivalence

Not every trademark has a readily identifiable meaning like ‘Apple’ that can be translated and transliterated.  In this situation, or where a mark already has name recognition in other countries, it can be preferable to create a mark in the local language that sounds like the mark in English.  For example, ‘Audi’ is known as ‘Ao Di’ (奥迪), and ‘Chanel’ ‘Xiang Nai Er’ (香奈儿) in China.

To create the phonetic equivalent, the foreign script is used to create a word(s) that sounds the same as the English word when pronounced by the local people. Therefore, when the foreign script is read, it sounds the same as (or very similar to) the English pronunciation of the word. However, it almost never translates to the English meaning, but rather an alternate meaning is now being associated with the brand.

lost in translation

Translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalents are not a simple process, and businesses that fail to consider the meaning or connotation of words in a local context risk embarrassing results.

Indeed, brand history is brimming with tales of translation gone awry.

In 2018, Audi launched an electric SUV named ‘e-tron’, which had a lovely ring to it in English.  However, sales in France were difficult as consumers were reluctant to sit in a turd (being the meaning of the French phonetic equivalent, ‘étron’). Similarly, Hunt-Wesson Foods marketed their line of ‘Big John’ products in Quebec as ‘Gros Jos’, which was unfortunately French-Canadian slang for ‘big boobs.’

Even well-oiled IP machines like Coca-Cola can be caught out, as the phonetic equivalent Chinese characters originally used to represent Coca-Cola had a meaning in Mandarin of ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’, depending on the dialect. Not quite the message that would inspire local Chinese to “taste the feeling”!

So how can you ensure the phonetic equivalent used for your unique/coined word/phrase isn’t associating an unwanted image/meaning with your brand?  The only way is to work with an experienced trade mark attorney that can provide you with multiple phonetic equivalent options and their meanings.  When this approach is taken, the result is very often a delicious outcome.

In doing this, Coca-Cola was able to ultimately settle on ‘Ke Kou Ke Le’ (可口可) in China, which translates to ‘tasty and happy’. While IKEA, known as ‘Yi Jia’ (宜家) in China, has aspects of both phonetic equivalence and translation, as the phrase means ‘comfortable home’ in Mandarin.

meaning matters: do your research

If you’re entering a new market that uses a foreign language script, it’s important to work with trade mark experts to determine what your trade mark will look like, sound like and mean, in the local language and how best to protect it. Translation, transliteration, and phonetic equivalence are all viable options, depending on what is your trade mark.

The Macpherson Kelley IP team has been helping businesses expand overseas for over 100 years.  Get in touch with one of our experts to ensure you secure appropriate trade mark protection for your business expansion