For foreign brands, choosing a Chinese name can be a slam dunk or a complete air ball.
U.S. basketball team the Dallas Mavericks have for more than 20 years been called xiaoniu in China, or “little cows.” But that name, club owner and tech billionaire Mark Cuban said in video posted on Chinese social media Monday, “has nothing to do with the Mavericks.” He has vowed to change it with help from the team’s fans.
In the video message to the team’s 1.8 million followers on microblog platform Weibo, Cuban announced that his club was working with Tencent, the tech company that owns the NBA’s broadcast rights in China, to come up with a suitable new Mandarin moniker. He explained that they would be interviewing “translation experts, basketball legends, and fans” for their suggestions until Sept. 24, after which they would have a public vote on the final name.
Many fans, however, say they’ve grown fond of their team’s admittedly mistranslated name.
Qu Jiayu, a medical equipment sales engineer who has been a Mavericks fan since 2005, told Sixth Tone that he would find it hard to accept a new translation that is closer to the English meaning of the word: “unbranded range animals.” But referring to the team’s star player, Qu said: “I love the Mavericks because of Nowitzki, so whatever name they change to, I’ll support them if he’s there.”
In the comments section of the video, suggested names include “old drivers” — a recently popular word with sometimes sexual connotations — “cowboys,” “mustangs,” “colts,” “Pegasus,” and “armored horses.”
“A team I’ve liked for 15 years suddenly wanting to change their name? I’m a bit stunned,” lamented one user. “I still think ‘little cows’ is good,” read another popular comment.
The suggested name change has also led to a wider discussion among China’s many NBA fans about the accuracy and history of teams’ Chinese names. Su Qun, a sports journalist and basketball commentator, posted an article on messaging app WeChat on Tuesday explaining that the foreign team names were translated for state broadcaster CCTV — the only channel through which NBA games could be watched in the days before the internet — in the early 1990s by a single translator working for the State General Sports Administration.
Over time, Su, who worked for a newspaper, said he began to feel some of the names were suspect. For example, he felt that the Minnesota Timberwolves, called “forest wolves” by the network, was better translated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where they are called “wood wolves” and “grey wolves,” respectively. After inviting an American coach to write about the history of the NBA, he was surprised to discover that the Indiana Pacers were named after a vehicle used in races. In Chinese, their name has been translated as the somewhat less impressive “walkers.” Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards are called qicai, which means “talents” or “prodigies.”
For foreign companies venturing into China, choosing localized names can be perilous. In March of this year, vacation rental website Airbnb’s new Chinese name, aibiying, which translates as “welcome each other with love,” was badly received for sounding unsophisticated, potentially risqué, and being difficult to pronounce.
Elyse Ribbons, a Shanghai-based entrepreneur and consultant who has been living and working in China for 16 years, told Sixth Tone that coming up with a good Chinese name for companies with English names is difficult, even for Chinese people, because of how different and complex the Chinese language is. “Some things that might sound downright silly in English are really good in Chinese, and vice versa,” said Ribbons. She explained that all names must have hanyi, “meaning,” and ideally auspicious or lucky characters.
Not getting a Chinese name can be equally perilous, as this leaves fans and even media free to come up with their own often humorous nicknames. “They will give you a name, so it’s better for you to have control over it,” said Ribbons. Facebook, which is inaccessible in China and does not have an official Mandarin name, is jokingly called feisibuke, meaning “you must die.”
BMW, on the other hand, had a stroke of luck: Without ever choosing their own Chinese name, the German car manufacturer came to be called baoma, a phonetic approximation that translates to “a precious or valuable horse.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Young fans wear rubber horse heads during the second half of an NBA game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, Texas, Dec. 28, 2015. Brandon Wade/IC)