Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. It is common in many languages for a word to carry multiple meanings. But because the range of Chinese phonemes (sounds) is relatively small, the language includes many instances where words with very different meanings will have similar or even identical pronunciations. Therefore, one must be very careful with the Chinese translation of names.
Everyone has heard the story of Coca-Cola being translated into “bite the wax tadpole” in China. Before Coca-Cola had established a standardized Chinese brand name, shopkeepers would try to capture the sound of “Coca-Cola” using Chinese characters. However, the characters themselves sometimes carried double meanings, creating weird phrases. Today, the official brand is transliterated kekou kele (可口可乐), which roughly means “let your mouth rejoice”.
When he first lived in China and tried to transliterate his own name, our localization project manager Ken Farrall accidentally called himself “fatty meat.” This peculiar characteristic of the Chinese language also informs a Chinese texting trend. A series of numbers can be used to stand in for popular expressions. For example, 70345 typed in a message sounds like “qing ni xiang xin wo” 请你相信我 meaning “please believe me.”
In honor of the start of the Year of the Ox, we consider eight examples of Chinese homophones that can impact your New Year, in ways both good and bad. These describe three ideas or objects to avoid during the Lunar New Year’s celebrations and five things to embrace. In a moment, you will see why we didn’t list four examples of each!
Four. The number 4 is the most dangerous Chinese homophone. Pronounced “si,” it sounds like “si” 死, meaning death. This is why hotels often skip from the third floor to the fifth floor and avoid numbering any subsequent floor with a 4. Many consumer items in the US are packaged in sets of four, but you should never give a set of four items to a Chinese person as a gift.
Sometimes two digits combine to get even scarier. 14, with the pronunciation “yao si,” sounds like “going to die.” Case in point: the martial-arts action movie “14 Blades.”
Shoes. The word for shoe (“xie” 鞋) sounds exactly the same as the Chinese word for evil 邪. Never give a gift of shoes to a Chinese person for the New Year, or really any time.
Clocks. The phrase “giving a clock” (“song zhong” 送钟) sounds exactly like the Chinese words for “attending a funeral”’ (送终). Avoid giving clocks and watches as gifts, especially during New Year’s.
Fish. The Chinese word for fish “yu” 鱼 has the same pronunciation as “extra” or “surplus” 餘. The phrase “nian nian you yu” 年年有余, “there will be an abundance every year,” sounds the same as 年年有鱼, “there will be fish every year.” Fish are served at meals and used as decorations during New Year celebrations because they symbolize wealth and prosperity.
Seeds. “Zi” 籽 (watermelon seeds, sunflower seeds, lotus seeds) are a popular snack for New Year, in part because they share the same sound as the word for children 子, which bring joy to a growing family. Therefore, eating and sharing snack seeds brings good fortune.
Black Moss. The sea algae known as black moss is called “fa cai”发菜 in Chinese. It’s a popular dish to serve during New Year’s feasts because it sounds just like 发财 “fa cai,” meaning to strike it rich. Serving this dish to your guests evokes the common New Year greeting “Gong xi fa cai” (恭禧发财): wishing you prosperity in the coming year.
Tang Yuan. The popular sweet ball dessert dish “tang yuan” 汤圆 , commonly eaten on the final day of the New Year celebrations, symbolizes unity and wholeness and sounds similar to “tuan yuan” 团圆, meaning reunion. A major part of the holiday involves family members coming across great distances to get together.
The Number Eight. The Chinese love the number 8. The pronunciation of 8 in Chinese, “ba” sounds like “fa” 发 the word for prosperity. For business and cultural transactions, the more 8s in a number the better. In 2003, China’s Sichuan Airlines paid more than U.S. $280,000 for the telephone number 8888 8888. In 2017 a Chinese investor paid a “lucky” AU$8,888,888 for an office block in Melbourne. And the 2008 Beijing Olympics opened on August 8th, at 8 minutes after 8 PM.
There are many other Chinese homophones that carry both positive and negative associations. If your marketing content includes dates, prices, weights or other numerical values, simply translating them into their literal Chinese equivalents may taint your message. This is why automated translation can be particularly risky for Chinese languages. Only a human translator can recognize whether a translated message sounds strange, funny, or frightening when spoken out loud.
In addition, because the same characters are used for writing different Chinese languages, something that reads well in Beijing might sound awful in Hong Kong. To reach Chinese customers with the most auspicious-sounding messages, be sure to request transcreation by native, in-country translators who are aware of the language trends and pitfalls specific to the Chinese market you want to reach.
February 12, 2021 marks the end of the Year of the Rat and the start of the Year of the Ox. According to Chinese myth, the clever Rat tricked the honest and hardworking Ox into giving up his place as the first sign of the zodiac. Unlike the Rat, the Ox is humble but strong, a logical thinker who rarely loses his temper. Perhaps the Ox is exactly who we need after this pandemic-troubled year!
We wish all our readers peace and prosperity in the coming year!