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March 06, 2008

Bite the Wax Tadpole?

You may have heard the story that Coca-Cola translated into Chinese meant “bite the wax tadpole.” (Some think it’s an urban legend.) In fact, it’s true, but the translation didn’t happen in the way you might think.

When Coca-Cola was first sold in China in 1927, it was obvious to the Coke employees in China that the Coca-Cola trademark must be transliterated into Chinese characters. To find the nearest phonetic equivalent to “Coca-Cola" required a separate Chinese character for each of the four syllables. Out of the 40,000 or so characters, there were only about 200 that were pronounced with the sounds the Company needed, and many of these had to be avoided because of their meaning.

While doing the research for four suitable characters, the employees found that a number of shopkeepers had also been looking for Chinese equivalents for Coca-Cola, but with strange results. Some had made signs that were absurd, adopting any group of characters that sounded remotely like "Coca-Cola" -- without giving a thought to the meaning of the characters used. One of these homemade signs sounded like “Coca-Cola” when pronounced, but the meaning of the characters came out something like “female horse fastened with wax” and another meant “bite the wax tadpole.” That’s where the myth comes in! So the strange translation was in China, but not because of The Coca-Cola Company!

The character for “wax,” pronounced “La,” appeared in both signs because that was the sound the sign makers were looking for. Anyone who knew Chinese would recognize the signs as a crude attempt to make up an arbitrary phonetic combination – and get a laugh from the meaning!

Although the Company was primarily concerned with the phonetic equivalent of Coca-Cola, the employees could not ignore the meaning of the characters, individually and collectively – even if the shopkeepers had done so. They chose Mandarin because this dialect was spoken by the great majority of Chinese. The closest Mandarin equivalent to Coca-Cola was “K'o K'ou K'o Lê.” The aspirates (designated by ‘) were necessary to approximate the English sounds. There was no suitable character pronounced “La” in Chinese, so they compromised on Lê (joy), which was approximately pronounced “ler.”

All Chinese characters had more than one meaning, but K'o K'ou K'o Lê (depending on context) commonly meant what is seen here:

Coke_in_china1

This combination for the Chinese trademark meant “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice” – showing the pleasure that could come from drinking Coke. That definition was a stroke of luck!

Coke_in_china2 When this trademark was registered in 1928, most Chinese writing was vertical and was read down from right to left. The two characters at the right mean drink, then the Chinese trademark, and then Delicious and Refreshing.

And just for some background: Coca-Cola was originally sold in China in 1927. Our sales on the mainland ceased in 1949, but in January 1979 the first shipment of Coke returned to China.

If any of you have photos showing Coca-Cola in China, I would love to see them.

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Comments

Can you tell us about the history of Coca-Cola in Russia and the Soviet Union?

Mike - Coca-Cola first went on sale in the Soviet Union in 1985. It was first available in tourist shops and then quickly available to citizens in Moscow and additional cities. Coke joined Fanta, which had been available to Soviet consumers since 1979 and was available in Moscow, Tallin and Kiev. Today, Russia continues to offer our Company a huge opportunity for growth. Thanks -- Phil

Hi Phil. I was seeing something elsewhere about Chinese translation of Coca-Cola. It says The Coca-Cola Company ran a contest to choose the best Chinese Translation in 1933. Chinese scholar Yee Chiang, who was a Chinese teacher in London University at that time won the champion with these 4 chacracters we have been using. You were saying as above that the Chinese logo was registered in 1928. Not sure which one is correct.

Shamus - Thank you for your message and for asking about the Coca-Cola name in Chinese. The information I mentioned came from an account from the Company's former legal counsel in China, who told the story of the name's origin. Our records support this, and we don't have a record of Yee Chiang's involvement. Do you remember where you read about that? I'd be happy to look into further. Thanks -- Phil

Thanks for the reply, Phil. Were there any sort of legal negotiations or diplomatic hoo-ha involved in getting Coke & Fanta into the USSR? Was the product in the USSR manufactured there or in western Europe and then imported? Was Coke ever introduced to Imperial Russia (before the 1917 revolution)? Thanks again, Mike.

Mike – Our products sold in the USSR were produced there. We have no records showing Coke was offered in Russia before the revolution, and –
while entering any new market can have its challenges -- I’m not aware of any particular “hoo ha” involved in our introduction in the USSR. While it may have taken us a few decades to enter Russia, it’s a very important part
of our business today. You can read more about our business there in our Annual Review (
http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/ourcompany/ar/operatinggroupoverview.html
). Thanks -- Phil

Regarding Shamus Qu's comment about reading Yee Chiang's suggestion of the transliterated name into Chinese, I also read the Chinese article on "The Coca-Cola Company" on Wikipedia . Here's the URL - http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%8F%AF%E5%8F%A3%E5%8F%AF%E4%B9%90%E5%85%AC%E5%8F%B8

According to the Chinese article, "Coca-Cola export company posted a contest to name Coca-Cola in Chinese in a newspaper in England [sic] and a Chinese scholar who was in England at the time (1920's) came up with the name and won 350 pounds."

No source was cited for the above.

Cokewww – Thanks so much for following up on that. I’m sorry to hear there is no source cited on the Wikipedia entry, but I will further check our records for any information about the contest to create a transliteration of the Coca-Cola name in Chinese, and will definitely post any information I can find. So far, though, everything we have in our Archives supports the story from our Company’s attorney in China at the time. Thanks -- Phil

Here is a link to a photo taken at the Beijing Airport in May 2005 showing a stylized Coca-Cola in Chinese.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/7xmedia/13603698/

Some of you write here is off base. For instance, your statement "The aspirates...were necessary to approximate the English sounds." makes little sense. Yes, those are aspirates, but that rendering is from the old Wade-Giles system used to transliterate Chinese. It's still pronounced the same, but now the system used to show pronunciation is the "pinyin" system, which would render the name as "Kěkǒu kělè". Moreover, no matter what snopes says, "kěkǒu" actually means "tasty" rather than the overly literal "permit mouth".

Hanmeng – Thank you for your comments. While I cannot claim to be an expert on the language, I see where there may be a difference. I did a second post about the meaning of Coca-Cola in Mandarin leading up to the Olympics in Beijing. That post says that when you take the characters together — instead of translating them as four individual pieces — you have a phrase that means “delicious happiness.” That seems to tie into the “tasty” definition you gave. Thank you for taking the time to help us better understand one of the many languages used to describe Coca-Cola around the world. -- Phil

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