Don't Misunderstand the Consumer

Chinese written characters although frequently described as pictures are not as intuitive as one might think and leave plenty of room for imagination.  Consisting mainly of dots and lines, meanings of words can be easily altered with the addition of a dot or a line. 

For those who are visually challenged but have a good ear, there are five tones to help navigate the way.  This, too, could be tricky and you could have people laughing in your face and not understand that you have said wrong.  Each tone for a sound can mean very different things.

Against this visual and auditory backdrop, the love to pun and tendency to circumvent issues in interviews and group discussions add further linguistic layers for unfolding.

Translation/interpretation is the transfer of meaning and involves accurate comprehension of the source language and adequate representation in the translated language. 

However meaning is complicated and often sited within a context - cultural or situational.  Often times, cultural nuances that are peculiar to a community are lost in translation.  Fortunately human needs and emotions, which are the key to market research, are universal and translatable to a large extent.

Anovax spoke with a couple of experienced marketing research simultaneous interpreters to find out some common Chinese words that are not so easy to translate into English:


  • 土 (tu): Literally means “earth, dirt or terra”.  It is one of consumers’ favorite adjectives for pack designs.  Often times, you may hear it translated as “rural and rustic” and may not consider it negative.  However for Chinese consumers, this conveys low tier, unrefined, crude, unsophisticated, uncultured, a sense of poor/bad taste.


  • 大气 (da qi):  It literally means “big atmosphere”.  Many Chinese consumers frequently use this adjective to describe almost everything and all interpreters consider it a nightmare.  It means presentable, lofty, grand, elegant, tasteful, posh and stunning.   A daqi design is usually one with simplicity, high quality materials and nice details which are not too “bling”.  A daqi person is one who is decent, generous, cultured…etc.


  • 大方  (da fang):  It often surfaces in the discussion on pack size and design and translated as “generous”.  When a pack is described as dafang, it is usually big in size and perceived as magnanimous, stylish and in good taste. 


  • 气场 (qi chang): Literally means “gas field”, the closest English equivalent would be magnetic field or wavelength.  A person with a strong qichang is charismatic, magnetic and exudes presence; someone who leaves an impression or affects people around him/her.


  • 新颖 (xin ying):  It literally means “new bud”. It is frequently translated as “novel” for packaging and colors but best translated as “new and original”.


  • 高贵 (gaogui): Often literally translated as noble, it conveys a sense of grandeur and premium status. 


  • 高尚 (gao shang): Meaning “lofty, refined and exquisite”, it is also often translated as “noble”.


  • 淡 (dan):  In fragrance /food/beverage tests, we often hear the word dan (淡) which could mean “light” (positive) or “weak” (negative) depending on the context.


  • 他/她/它 (ta): Although the pronouns he, she and it are visually different and thus easy to translate on paper, the pronunciation is the same and hence, interpreters often need to listen carefully before they use the right pronoun.


  • 哥哥  (ge ge) / 弟弟  (di di) / 姐姐  (jie jie) / 妹妹 (mei mei): These are terms for “brother” and “sister” and sometimes also refers to cousins.  In Chinese, different titles are accorded to older and younger brother/sister. Similarly, paternal and maternal grandparents, aunts/uncles have their own honorific titles.


Most translators/interpreters are more than happy to explain the wider connotations and meanings of words to help clarify meanings.  You may be surprised what a simple word could hold.