How do you say Coca-Cola in Chinese? And examples of lost and found in Chinese translations

2014-08-04 — Good Characters (Leave a message)

Posted: 2014-07-28
Updated: 2014-08-04

Coca-Cola had a terrible initial Chinese naming blunder and a great comeback name. One of its first Chinese names was a transliteration meaning “bite the wax tadpole.” The company didn’t have an official Chinese name and Chinese shop owners created their own versions without giving much thought to how it would be perceived. When the company took the time to develop an official Chinese name, it came up with characters meaning “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice”; this name was well received and is widely considered one of the best transliterated Chinese brand names.

蝌蝌啃蠟 (kē kē kěn là): “bite the wax tadpole”

可口可樂 (kě kǒu kě lè): “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice”

So when I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, I simply could not pass up the opportunity to visit the World of Coca-Cola to learn more about the brand.

It was a beautiful sunny day with fluffy clouds in Atlanta.

Kids were having a great time.

A gigantic coke bottle sign.

World of Coca-Cola. This calligraphic logo is truly iconic.

Coca-Cola has an official version of the “bite the wax tadpole” story on its blog; I have included the link below.

Coke’s explanation, however, didn’t mention who created the wonderful “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice” transliteration. The name is attributed to Chinese poet, author, painter, and calligrapher Chiang Yee (1903-1977) according to many articles I found in China, though I cannot verify the truth of the accounts. The story goes that Coke chose 可口可樂 (Kě Kǒu Kě Lè), the name created by Chiang Yee, who lived in England at the time, over all other suggestions by people in China. He was said to have been paid £350 for creating the name.

This story is interesting because such a great name came from a talented individual who didn’t even live in China. So you know it doesn’t always take a committee or a branding agency to craft a great name for you.

I also want to point out that the official explanation says, “The closest Mandarin equivalent to Coca-Cola was ‘K’o K'ou K'o Lê.’” That seems wrong to me. 可口可樂 is always pronounced “Kě Kǒu Kě Lè”, never “K’o K'ou K'o Lê”. One interesting thing I haven’t seen anyone point out is that Coca, if transliterated literally, should be Kǒu Kě instead of Kě Kǒu. And what is the first word that comes to mind when Chinese hear Kǒu Kě? It’s 口渴 (kǒu kě), meaning thirst. The genius is thus by switching Kǒu Kě to Kě Kǒu, the meaning went from thirsty, 口渴 (kǒu kě), to tasty, 可口 (kě kǒu).

Remember this when you are in charge of the next brand name transliteration project: Experiment by switching the word/sound sequence around and you might discover a better name.

Home of happiness. Isn’t it amazing that sugar water can be associated with happiness?

The secret is inside. It’s not just an ordinary sugar drink. It has a secret!

These giant artistic bottles are in the waiting area in the lobby. My eyes were drawn first to things with which I am familiar — here, the Beijing opera bottle. These bottles were sent in from Coke employees from all over the world so there is something for everyone to look at.

More bottles.

There are many large displays with different slides to keep visitors visually stimulated and occupied.

127+ years of happiness. Wow. 200+ countries. That’s remarkable. 1.9 billion+ serving a day. Can anyone beat that? A group of kids is about to learn everything the company would love them to know about Coke.

Once I entered the main area, I was in a room with red light filled with memorabilia. I wish I could take pictures of everything in close detail, but there were just too many objects in the room.

The sign says “Drink Coca-Cola.” This sounds like a commandment! Ha ha. If I read this too many times I might just be hypnotized and take a drink. It also says “Sign of Good Taste.” It’s definitely a unique taste. It’s THE drink I craved when I was a few weeks into boot camp and didn’t have anything to drink but water.

This gentleman knows the history of Coke.

This is some version of the original sign taken from somewhere.

A Korean sign in hangul.

A Korean hanging banner, again, all in hangul.

Back then it was about the taste and about being refreshed.

Here’s the original Coke syrup dispenser. A few drops and add water for 5 cents. Ice for another penny or a few cents. Or something like that.

Here’s a Chinese print that says「大枝庄,又多又經濟」, meaning “In a large bottle. More and economical.” I’d prefer「大瓶裝」(large bottle) because it’s more commonly used, sounds better, and doesn’t have the slight sexual connotation that「大枝」(big stick) has.

Also,「庄」should be「裝」. These two characters sound the same but have different meanings. The difference is like the difference between “my deer” and “my dear.”

Here are some words in simplified Chinese.

創造 (创造) innovation
樂觀 (乐观) optimism
神清氣爽 (神清气爽) refresh body, mind and spirit
遺產 (遗产) heritage
啟發 (启发) inspire

These are all very good. I’d improve the translation of “heritage” from 遺產 (遗产) to 傳承 (传承) because 遺產 (遗产) brings up associations of the dead or the grave whereas 傳承 (传承) brings to mind the positive thought of passing something down throughout generations.

I also think innovation should be 創新 (创新) instead of 創造 (创造), meaning creation.

More artistic bottles.

These are beautiful old postcards.

Close-up of a bottle.

He is not drinking wine, but a glass of Coke.

I once told my friends, “Santa wore green until Coke inspired him to change to red.” And they laughed and said, “There was no Santa.”

These are all very nice.

Here is a special holiday bottle with Chinese New Year’s greetings. 心想事成 means “All wishes come true”, 歡聚一堂 (欢聚一堂) means “Joyous gathering”, 知足常樂 (知足常乐) means “Contentment brings happiness”, and 恭禧發財 (恭禧发财) is gōng xǐ fā cái, meaning “Congratulations and have good fortune.”

Here you can taste hundreds of Coke products from all over the world.

There is also a machine that allows you to mix drinks.

I’m also interested in seeing the process of making a bottle of Coke.

The vault is the place they say the secret recipe is stored.

The label on this old Coke bottle looks like today’s Tabasco label to me.

A whole bunch of over-the-top presentations regarding the history and the secret of Coke. It’s a bit fake and too much for me. I didn’t pay much attention in this area.


Here’s the secret vault.

The making of a Coke.

At the end visitors get to take a glass bottle of Coke with them.

The transliteration with the closest sound resemblance to Coca-Cola in Mandarin should be 口渴口辣 (kǒu kě kǒu là), literally “thirsty and mouth spicy.” Through one man’s stroke of genius a much better name, 可口可樂 (kě kǒu kě lè), “good taste and joyful,” was created. And the rest is history.

Let me know if you encounter issues developing the Chinese version of your brand name. I’ll try to address them in future articles.

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