Transliterated brand names

London Dairy ad on a building in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Igloo ad on truck in Abu Dhabi, UAE

I’ve just come across a 2006 University of South Africa MA thesis investigating Saudi fast-food ads. The author, Basem Abbas Al Agha, finds that

[…] 97% of the respondents believed that the translations are incomprehensible in Arabic. The other 3% stated that they sometimes understand the translations. (p. 92)

Even if the sample size is rather small, these are astounding results: basically, he’s saying that the entire target population of an advertising message doesn’t get it. Small wonder that Arabic speakers often gripe about the way the Arabic language has become “infested” (Al Agha’s term; p. 82) with English. Al Agha notes that the preferred “translation” strategy in his corpus of Saudi fast-food ads is transliteration rather than translation. Transliteration is also very much in evidence elsewhere in the Arab World. Consider the following four examples. I took the first two pictures in Abu Dhabi, the third one was taken in Cairo and published by Gulf News, and I took the fourth one – surprise, surprise – in Munich.

What these signs have in common is the fact that they look bilingual but are really monolingual in two different scripts. “London Dairy” is “London Dairy” in the Roman and the Arabic script; “Igloo” is “Igloo” in the Roman and Arabic script; “Smart” is “Smart” in the Roman and Arabic script; and “McDonalds” is “McDonalds” in the Roman and Arabic script. The McDonalds sign may look monolingual but that is just because neither the Roman nor the Cyrillic versions that also grace the McDonalds outlet at Munich’s central Marienplatz fit in the picture.

Clothing store in Cairo, Egypt; source:

McDonald's outlet in Munich, Germany

Some of these transliterations fit the patterns of the Arabic language more comfortably than others but all of them can be considered loan-words and insert a foreign or exotic element into the Arabic language. Unsurprisingly, some Arabic speakers find them annoying. Al Agha claims that this type of advertising is outright “rejected by the target culture” (p. vi). I don’t know about that seeing how prevalent the practice is and how well fast-food restaurants in particular seem to be doing in the region.

Of course, the transfer of brand names from one language market to another is inherently a tricky business as the imperative to keep the brand constant in order to achieve brand recognition is in conflict with the imperative to be responsive to the specificity of the target market. Many people have heard of and had a good laugh at some of the more spectacular misnomers such as the one by Mitsubishi, who didn’t bother to check the meaning of Pajero before they introduced the car of this name to Latin America (it’s the equivalent of a four-letter word in some countries in the region) or Ford, who made the same mistake, when they introduced their Nova to Spanish-speaking markets (“no va” = “doesn’t move”). I’ve got a chapter on interlingual brand name bloopers in my PhD thesis, which is available from our Resources Section. However, infelicities such as these are really those of an older, less sophisticated era of advertising – certainly before the advent of diversity marketing. The “multi-scripted” (is that the term for the phenomenon?) rendition of the “McDonald’s” name in Munich is the most obvious example of the strategy I have collected to date: an obvious attempt to signal diversity symbolically by one of the most homogeneous corporations in the world.

Unlike large US brands such as McDonald’s who may seek to symbolically distance themselves from all forms of hegemony, including linguistic hegemony, in order to be able to do “hegemonic business,” small local shops such as the “Smart” tailor in Cairo still bank on the cache of English in order to attract customers.

Frontpage of the IT section of the Jam-e Jam newspaper, Iran

One of the reasons I mostly dislike transliterated brand-names is that they are so obviously fake. Scratch the surface of these “multilingual” signs a tiny bit and all that is beneath it is English monolingualism. However, I also have (one!) example of a very sophisticated multi-scripted brand name in my corpus! This one comes not from the Arab world but from Iran: the name of the IT section of the Iranian newspaper Jam-e Jam is “click.” “Click” is much more than a simple transliteration as the word can be read both ways: read from right-to-left, you get “click” in the Arabic script; read from left-to-right, you get “click” in the Roman script. Multilingual creativity at its best!

Anyone got examples of transliterated brand names and advertising? I’m always on the look-out to increase my collection :-) Al Agha, Basem Abbas (2006). The translation of fast-food advertising texts from English into Arabic Unpublished MA dissertation, University of South Africa

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Over the course of her international career, she has also held appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and USA. Ingrid’s research expertise is in Intercultural Communication, the Sociolinguistics of Language Learning and Multilingualism, and Bilingual Education. She is particularly interested in the ways in which linguistic diversity as it arises in the contexts of globalization and migration intersects with social inclusion and global justice.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Vahid

    Dear Ingrid,

    Another example might be this one:

    This is the brandname (Noodelite) for a kind of ready-in-3-minute Noodle in IRAN.
    I’m not 100% sure about the origin of the name but I think it may orinially refer to the English “Elite Noodles”.

    Health & Peace,

  • Joanne Hong

    I’ve tried to find multiliterated brand names in Korea, but I couldn’t. When I visit Korea, I’ll carefully have a look at them.

    In relation to the transliterated brand names, I found that the name of McDonald’s ‘Happy Meal’ in English is translated or transliterated as ‘Happy set’ in Japanese and ‘Happy little box’ in Spanish, but ‘Happy meal’ in Korean.

    Here, the Spanish version (actually, I can’t read Spanish at all) sounds transliterated into Spanish with the meaning of ‘Happy little box’, but the Japanese and Korean versions are written in Japanese (‘Katakana’) and Korean scripts, respectively.

  • Dave

    The Chevy Nova story is an urban legend with absolutely no basis in fact. The Nova sold quite well in Mexico and the rest of Latin American, where the Latin word is well-known and understood. Just like an English speaker would never think a “carpet” was a domesticated animal that one keeps in an automobile, Spanish speakers have no trouble with “Nova.” In fact, one of the best selling brands of gasoline in Mexico at the time was Nova gas.

    Anyone who mindlessly repeats this tale has no clue what they are talking about–and that includes the branding consultants who use it to scare up more customers.

    I’ve investigated a lot of similar stories and I’ve yet to find one where there is any *evidence* that a brand name had a negative impact on sales because of a translation problem.

    This is different from the translation v. transliteration issue. There are lots of brand names where the underlying imagery or metaphor that is available in English does not translate. But since the primary function of a brand is recognition, not metaphorical meaning, this is rarely a significant problem.

    Occasionally one can do a transliteration that does both, as in certain Chinese dialects where Coca-Cola can be transliterated using characters that can mean “let the mouth rejoice,” but this is rare and serendipitous when it happens. (And yes, the “bite the wax tadpole” story is another myth.)

  • Ingrid Piller

    Hi Dave,
    thanks for pointing that out. I agree that most of the much-hyped brandname bloopers belong to the realm of myth for all kinds of reasons – mostly simply because the target market is not identical to the language area; a good example is the Rolls Royce Silver Mist, which is often said not to have sold in Germany because “Mist” is the German word for “manure.” However, the car is such an exclusive luxury product and RR only targeted a very tiny elite anyways, and that group could obviously be expected to speak English.
    However, there is all kinds of evidence that the brand name and the advertising strategy do affect sales in international contexts. This, for example, is a good case study:

    Li, F., & Shooshtari, N. H. (2007). Multinational Corporations’ Controversial Ad Campaigns in China: Lessons from Nike and Toyota. Advertising and society, 8(1).

    Here is the abstract:
    As both the world’s third-largest advertising economy and an emerging market, China promises great potential for multinational corporations. However, the multiethnic Chinese culture, with its unique history and values, as well as its complex ideographic script and independent visual culture, also challenges the ability of the multinationals to communicate accurately, effectively, and without offense. In this article, we discuss Toyota’s 2003 and Nike’s 2004 ad campaigns, both of which were banned by the Chinese government in response to consumer outrage. In essence, we propose that incongruent cultural views of consumers and marketers, a lack of historical sensitivity on the part of the advertisers, and different levels of sociolinguistic ability between the makers and their audience resulted in such a failure.

  • Lab Rat

    This happens ALL THE TIME in Kuwait on most advertising billboards. I’m only just learning Arabic, so I sometimes have a large mental block trying to remember what “gul-fa waa-ta” means only to realise I’m reading “Gulfa water” (a water bottle company) in Arabic letters.

    Funniest one ever saw was a double translate on a Chinese health salon. They’d translated their name into direct English which meant that the word “Pe Na No” was written on the side, followed by the English sounds writen out in Arabic. I’m not sure whether it made sense in either language.

  • mraow

    Japanese is rife with examples of transliteration, and brands are but a small percentage of that. I’m sure you’re aware of gairaigo and katakana… Which sometimes ends up taking a character and life of its own, resulting in “Japanese English”—words that were based on an English word but have a Japan-specific meaning. For example, “gurasan” (an inversion of “sangura”, which is a very Japanese-style shortening of “sunglasses”).
    Oddly enough though, popular English songs and movies get a Japanese title that *isn’t* a transliteration, which proves an unexpected hurdle for English speakers to find what they want (in my case, when I most need it!)

    When I noticed brand name transliteration happening in Sri Lanka it struck me as rather lame. I believe you find it in certain brands of cheese and pasta around the world, but it’s such a token form of multilinguism that it might as well not be there. Seriously, it just says “Cheese”. Or “Pasta”. In the Sinhala script. And that’s it!

  • Anna

    Dear Ingrid,
    Ive just come up with another example which may be of help. Recently, here in IRAN theres an advertisement on TV which tries to attract childrens attention. Heres the story: Its a box full of toys designed for kids and in the shape of a turtle. The interesting point is that they claim if you buy one of the boxes youll be trying your chance and depending on how lucky you are youll win the prize inside the box! In Persian turtle is called Laakposht and very popular among children called Laaky !!!! So, lucky and laaky are two different words in English and Persain which have been sharply chosen since they could be read in the same way in both scripts! I like this creativity!!


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  • Katia

    I just noticed that no one proposed such a reason for transliteration as prestige.. Especially with that Cairo Smart. As I moved from the one non-Western place (former USSR) to live in another one (Poland), its obvious for me that every nice word (preferable English, French (if its fashion) or Italian (cuisine) or German (automotive)) can find its honorable place because of prestige! Poland uses Latin letters (though not everyone is able to read properly eg Peugeot, Carrefourt etc) but still demonstrates inferiority by adopting lots and lots of foreign words. The same happens in Cyrillic region, where one can speak almost only using adopted (transliterated) words (so called novoyaz – new language), where ads (especially those for elites) are full of loanwords unclear for Tolstoy readers…
    As to Egipt, I remember the nicest experience I had there was at the bazaar, where a guy foisted on me a great t-shirt with big dior on it, and was hugely surprised when I refused:)!

  • Karin

    Hi Ingrid, just came across your post so my comment is a little late but the transliteration of Coca-Cola into chinese is propably the most successfull transliteration of a brand name I have come across, they manaed to transliterate the brand name into chinese characters which carry positive meaning and and when read out loud actually sounds like -Coca-Cola : see

    All the best

  • Name me Dan

    A good service to understand a name on a global level is It lets you verify the name to eliminate bad words in most langugaes, decompose the name, thesaurus etc. Have a look.