Don’t Get Lost in Global Translation

What are customers around the world saying about the new booming Middle Eastern brands? What are they reading in the brand names? Which ones are they loving and talking about? Which ones can they pronounce, type and remember easily? Are these new local brands leading the charge for global mindshare and creating a sense of greatness, or are they seriously lost in global translation?

Currently, 99 percent of mega-Middle Eastern projects are being branded under Arabic-based names — which are mostly foreign to international audiences — while some are projecting mixed messages due to translation. These stumbling blocks can seriously limit brand-name appreciation, prolonging the costly process of obtaining global mindshare.

To appreciate this dilemma, unless you are fluent in Japanese, try to make sense out of a fancy scripted Japanese name with some deeply rooted cultural message and a rich heritage.

For this reason, more than half a century ago, the global image-savvy corporate Japan developed all of its major brand names based on international rules of translations, taking into account unintended connotations and pronunciations. This was done with an eye toward global appeal, making the names easy to talk about, spell and remember. Contrary to popular belief, America really provided the most resistance to global branding. It was the Japanese who truly laid the systematic foundation on what makes globally accepted and universal name identities fit enough to capture global attention.

Decades ahead, Japan was on the forefront of creating global brands like Toyota, Minolta, Sony, Pentax, Sharp, Panasonic, Canon and hundreds of other five star standard names, as names originating from the Japanese language would have never gained such global acceptance.

Surprisingly, today, China is stuck with too many local language-based name brands that seriously inhibit internationalization of their identities. That’s very bad for a country now recognized as the world’s largest factory. Done properly, China could have easily claimed hundreds of globally popular names. India currently sits in the middle. Being more open to non-local-language naming, it is now on its way to becoming the next global powerhouse of domestic brands,

In order to truly benefit with these global intricacies and having a vision to acquiring universal name identities, one must bite the bullet first, and be open to a frank and candid boardroom-level discussions in micro detail; a process demanding a commanding knowledge of global business naming procedures, corporate nomenclature and many other different skills unheard of in the traditional logo-centric, slogan-happy branding process.

After all, the prime objective of any brand name is to spread its wings and fly in expanding markets, something only possible when names are without extra luggage.

A for Arabic Naming

Currently, in the Middle East, the traditional long branding process ends in an Arabic name, often starting with the letter “A”, a most intricate logo with colorful schemes, something extremely difficult to appreciate or decipher on the global markets. Any assembly of the top 50 names and their logos would clearly spell out the global challenges facing this process.

Does this now mean that we should abandon Arabic words or start discussing prospects for depending on the letters “B” or “C”? Not at all. It means we should be aware that the alphabet of each language has hidden characters, strengths, weaknesses and related trends; it’s not a simple question of the cut-and-paste solution of inserting letters into famous or already existing name brands.

Naming from the English dictionary has also been a common problem in the West decades ago. At one time, there were hundreds of companies in the U.S. with names such as Dynamic, Quantum, Prism or Rainbow. At the time, they sounded powerful and fresh, but many eventually died out due to worldwide name confusions. Furthermore, global e-commerce and the use of digital branding for domain names clearly points to a serious need for highly specialized skills.

It is also very important to note that despite the seeming dominance of English, there are some 2,700 different languages with 8,000 dialects around the world. Altogether, there are 12 important language families with 50 lesser ones. Indo-European is the largest family in which English is the most important category.

Based on usage by population, the following is a list of major languages in descending order: Chinese, English, Hindustani, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Bengali, Mali and Italian.

“Nay” is yes to Greeks. The American “yeah” means “no” to the Japanese. A simple laugh — “ha, ha, ha” — means “mother” in Japanese, while “Ohio” means “good morning.” In Russia, “looks” means “opinion” and “socks” means “juice.” In France, a simple sign of “sale” means “dirty.” To the British, long distance is a “trunk” and elevator a “lift.” The Chinese word “mai” said in a certain style means to “buy” and in another style to “sell.” When enunciated together, “mai mai” means “business.” The simplicity turns into complex marketing challenges. Global understandings of these issues are pre-requisite in achieving a globally acceptable name-identity.


We all had better be wary of language issues. Customers are no longer simply local to your streets; they are scattered all over the globe, local to their own streets, yet still somehow connected together. The next branding challenge for the Middle East is to acquire a deeper understanding of universal image and identity management.

The best thing to do is conduct a highly professional third-party nomenclature audit. Many businesses, convinced that that they have the best and most well-known name identity may actually just be hearing it from their own people and customers in their own market.

The real challenge is to measure the unknown customer base at large, in new and untapped territories. Check connotations and language issues to find out where the name could be rejected or taken as too confusing and forgettable.

The ultimate goal is to acquire globally recognized name identities, and name personalities are only good when they are liked and understood by the global audience. So why stay lost in global translations?

Naseem Javed is recognized as a world authority on Corporate Image and Global Cyber-Branding. Author of Naming for Power, he introduced The Laws of Corporate Naming in the 80s and also foundedABC Namebank, a consultancy established in New York and Toronto a quarter century ago. Currently, he is on a lecture tour in Asia and can be reached at[email protected]. Special Offer: E-mail your current business name plus its domain name for comments and a complimentary Global Name Evaluation from ABC Namebank. Please identify your title and provide some background details about your company and how that name is used. Extreme confidentiality is assured.

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