China: Brand Transliteration - How To Translate And Protect Your Brand For The Chinese Market

Last Updated: 5 January 2017
Article by Hongyan Wang

When entering the Chinese market, a foreign company, besides application for the registration of its Latin trademark in China, needs to design the corresponding Chinese trademark and apply for its registration in a timely manner to adapt to the cognitive custom of Chinese consumers and exploit the Chinese market on the one hand, and protect the trademark rights fully and comprehensively on the other. Due to the complexity of Chinese language, many foreign companies may have doubts in translating their Latin trademarks into corresponding Chinese trademarks and protecting the Chinese trademarks. We, in this article, will explore how to translate and protect your brand in the Chinese market.

I. How to translate your brand

The most remarkable feature of Chinese character is that it does not directly indicating pronunciation but combining shapes and meanings. Each Chinese character can be marked with Mandarin Chinese pronunciation by Chinese pinyin. One Chinese character may have different pronunciations, while different Chinese characters may have the same pronunciation, and many Chinese characters have similar pronunciations but with different tones.

In the translation of trademarks, the designed Chinese trademarks shall firstly conform to the requirement of the Chinese Trademark Law, including that trademarks shall have distinctive characteristics, not directly indicate the functions and features of the goods or services, and not violate the prohibitive provisions stipulated in the Trademark Law. Secondly, from the perspective of linguistics, the trademarks shall follow grammatical rules, have resounding and clear pronunciations, and be succinct and easy to remember. And thirdly, from the perspective of advertising and marketing, the trademarks shall have novelty, convey pleasant meaning instead of unpleasant meaning, be attractive to consumers, and comply with the business features and market orientation.

Specifically speaking, foreign trademarks, typically Latin alphabet trademarks, are often translated into Chinese in the following approaches,

1. Literal Translation

If a foreign trademark has practical meaning in its language, the corresponding Chinese character(s) containing the same meaning may be used as its Chinese trademark. For instance, the corresponding Chinese trademark of "APPLE" is "苹果" whose Chinese pinyin is PING GUO, "SHELL" is "壳牌"(QIAO PAI), and "VOLKSWAGEN" is "大众"(DA ZHONG). However, Chinese trademarks which are directly translated according to their Chinese meanings only account for a small proportion among all trademarks, because a large proportion of foreign trademarks do not have practical meanings. And moreover, under some circumstances, a foreign trademark may have corresponding Chinese meaning, but the Chinese meaning lacks resounding and clear pronunciation or for other reasons, the company tends not to use its literal translation.

2. Transliteration

Transliteration is an approach by which the corresponding Chinese character is selected to form the Chinese trademark according to the pronunciation of the foreign trademark. Most Chinese trademarks designed in this way do not have specific meanings. For example, the corresponding Chinese trademark of "CADILLAC" is "凯迪拉克" whose Chinese pinyin is "KAI DI LA KE", "ARMANI" is "阿玛尼" ("A MA NI"), "HILTON" is "希尔顿"("XI ER DUN"), "BOEING" is "波音"("BO YIN"), "SONY" is "索尼" ( "SUO NI"), and "SIEMENS" is "西门子"("XI MEN ZI").

3. Adaptation

Some foreign trademarks have no practical meanings but are translated into Chinese characters or phrases with practical meanings according to their features, and the translations are creative, imaginative and impressive.

For instance, BMW has no practical meaning and is hard to translate into Chinese according to its pronunciation. The corresponding Chinese trademark of "BMW" is "宝马" whose Chinese pinyin is "BAO MA", meaning "precious horse". In ancient China, the horse was an important traffic vehicle for people. Precious horses are typically rarely found and are said to be able to cover one thousand miles in a single day, and there are many poems in praise of precious horses in ancient Chinese language. With pleasant meaning and complying with Chinese culture and Chinese consumers' psychology, the use of the Chinese trademark "宝马"on automobiles is appropriate and successful.4.

4. Combination of transliteration, literal translation and adaptation

In practice, transliteration is more often used to design Chinese trademarks. However, the majority of trademarks are not translated through transliteration alone but through the combination of transliteration, literal translation and adaptation.

Some Chinese trademarks are designed through the combined use of translation and transletration. For instance, the corresponding Chinese trademark of "STARBUCKS" is "星巴克" ("XING BA KE"). The first character "星" is the literal translation of "STAR", and the last two "巴克" are the transliteration of "BUCK".

As noted above, one important feature of Chinese characters is the wide existence of homonyms. There are different Chinese characters with the same pronunciation, and probably dozens of Chinese characters with similar pronunciations but different tones. Many excellent Chinese trademarks in the market are designed meticulously through the combined use of transliteration and adaptation. The most typical example is the trademark "COCO-COLA". The corresponding Chinese trademark of "COCO-COLA" is "可口可乐" whose Chinese pinyin "KE KOU KE LE" is similar to the pronunciation of "COCO-COLA", therefore, it may be taken as a trademark designed through transliteration, but all of the four Chinese characters are selected meticulously. "可口"means "TASTY" or "DELCICIOUS","KE LE" means "PLEASING". Thus, the meanings of the parts of "可口可乐" can lead the consumers to have the pleasing association and produce good market effect. At the same time, "KE KOU KE LE in Chinese characters" as a whole is not a ready word or phrase in Chinese language, does not directly indicate the functions and features of the goods, and thus, does not violate the provision of having distinctive characteristics as required by the Trademark Law.

There are also some Chinese trademarks used on cosmetics which have been designed through approximate transliteration. The corresponding Chinese trademark of "ESTEE LAUDER" is "雅诗兰黛" (Chinese pinyin of "YA SHI LAN DAI"), for example, "CHANEL" is "香奈儿" ( "XIANG NAI ER"), and "LANCOME" is "兰蔻" ( "LAN KOU"). All the selected Chinese characters are related to beauty, elegance, poetry, flowers, perfume, etc., similar to the Latin trademarks in pronunciation, and easy to read. At the same time, these characters, as a whole, are not ready words or phrases with specific the dictionary

Therefore, in translating your brand into Chinese, which Chinese character(s) should be selected is often determined through the combined use of such approaches as transliteration, translation and adaptation, and, at the same time, complying with the features of the goods, consumers' psychology and market effect. This higher standard of Chinese translation of trademarks cannot be achieved by simple translation by GOOGLE. Only through meticulous translation and design can the trademark be created closely corresponding to the foreign trademark and have clear sound, impressive meaning and high recognition from consumers.

When designing Chinese trademarks, an important thing that you should bear in mind is to carry out trademark searches for the Chinese trademarks under design to find out whether the Chinese trademarks conflict with others' prior applied or registered trademarks or not so as to finally decide which Chinese trademark(s) under design should be selected for trademark registration.

II. How to protect your brand

The features of the Chinese market decide that a successful brand in foreign language needs a corresponding Chinese trademark, and many cases have shown that an excellent Chinese trademark plays an important role in the success of your brand and your business. The Chinese Trademark Law applies the principle of prior application and where two or more applicants file application for registeration of identical or similar trademarks in respect of the same or similar goods, the Trademark Office shall examine and approve for publication the mark with the earliest application date and refuse registration of the other trademark applications. Thus, before entering the Chinese market or upon entering Chinese market, you had better design the corresponding Chinese trademark and apply for trademark registration for the purpose of use and protection of your brand.

The case of trademark "CASTEL" is a good example on timey application. French Chateau CASTEL, the largest vintner in Europe, owns trademark "CASTEL" and has obtained trademark registration in respect of wine in China, but has not registered the corresponding Chinese trademark. CASTEL entered Chinese market in 1998, and began to sell a considerable amount of wine marked with the Chinese trademark "卡斯特" whose Chinese pinyin is "KA SI TE" in China from 2006. The wine branded "卡斯特" became one of the most popular wine in China with annual sales of several hundred million RMB yuan. But the Chinese trademark "卡斯特", which is the transliteration of CASTEL, was applied for registration on wine by Li Daozhi, a Spanish natural person, in 1998. In 2005, French Chateau CASTEL applied to cancel the trademark "卡斯特" registered by Li Daozhi based on non-use for three consecutive years, but failed. Afterwards, Li Daozhi and Shanghai PANATI Wine Co., Ltd. which was authorized by Li Daozhi to use the trademark "卡斯特" brought a lawsuit against French Chateau CASTEL for infringing upon their exclusive right to use the registered trademark "卡斯特". In July 2012, the court of final instance decided that French Chateau CASTEL and its distributors shall cease to use the trademark "卡斯特" and compensate 33.73 million RMB yuan to Li Daozhi and Shanghai PANATI Wine Co., Ltd. We do not intend to give analysis or comment on the case itself here, but to show the importance of timely registration of Chinese trademarks.

China adopts the Nice classification of goods and svercies. For the purpose of use of the brand and to better protect the brand and avoid rush applications by others, applications in repect of goods/services in related classes need to be considered. For instance, for a trademark mainly used on garments, besides the application for trademark registration in Class 25, applications on bags in Class 18, cosmetics in Class 3, eye glasses in Class 9, and sales services in Class 35, etc. are suggested to be filed. Moreover, the China Trademark Office puts the goods/services which fall in the same class into different subclasses according to their materials, functions, purpose of use, sales channels and target consumers. Goods/services in different subclasses are generally deemed as dissimilar. For example, shoes and hats are in different subclasses in Class 25. Therefore, when appliying for trademark registration, you should also consider the related goods/services in different subclasses.

Generally speaking, in order to effectively protect your brand, attention should be given to the following points:

  1. Besides timely applying for trademark registration of the foreign trademark in China, you should translate your brand into Chinese, design corresponding Chinese trademarks, conduct trademark searches, and apply for the registration of the Chinese trademarks in China in a timely manner for the purpose of use and protection.
  2. You had better simultaneously apply for registration of several alternative Chinese trademarks in case one or more of them might fail in obtaining registration.
  3. When applying for trademark registration, you had better consider all related goods, subclasses and classes so as to avoid omissions.
  4. Once used in market, except for special reasons, the Chinese trademark should not be changed arbitrarily so as to keep the stability of the Chinese trademark and the sustainable promotion of reputation for the Chinese trademark.
  5. Please keep evidence of use of your trademarks for use in possible non-use cancellations, oppositions, invalidations or infringement cases.
  6. You had better keep your brand under trademark watches so as to find out others rush or similar applications and to file oppositions or invalidations against them timely.

All in all, considering the features of Chinese characters and Chinese market, properly translating your brand into Chinese and timely applying for registration of both your Latin and Chinese trademarks can ensure the protection of your brand and lay a solid foundation for the marketing, promotion and success of your brand in China.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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