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Apple's Tone Deaf Translation

Whenever a company expands into a new country, it’s essential to try to avoid making linguistic and/or cultural blunders. Even the largest corporations can make mistakes, as Apple recently found when it opened a version of the iTunes store for the Hong Kong market.

To make the iTunes store accessible to people in Hong Kong, music from local artists was featured prominently and all of the text was translated.

Unfortunately, Apple decided to translate the text into Mandarin pinyin, a system invented in the 1950’s that translates Chinese characters into Latin script. Hong Kong is part of China, so that makes sense, right? Not so fast. People in Hong Kong actually speak Cantonese (not Mandarin), and they are fiercely protective of their language, which sounds quite different from Mandarin and is generally written using traditional Chinese characters. The Wall Street Journal explained:

“A former British colony, Hong Kong returned to mainland Chinese rule in 1997, but has stayed proudly loyal to its own native dialect and customs. Many locals resent the intrusion of Mandarin—which China’s government has promoted for decades as the official language across the border—and fear that Cantonese, spoken by 96% of the population, is gradually being shunted aside.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why some Hong Kong residents became irate and started venting on Twitter.

As one user quoted in the Wall Street Journal tweeted:

“Those are CANTO pop [songs]. Use cantonese [sic] phonetics.”

Even Hong Kong residents who were impressed by iTunes’ local music selection were frustrated by the tone-deaf translation:

“I thought iTunes wouldn’t have many good Cantonese songs, but they even have [Cantopop singer] Paula Tsui,” wrote one Hong Kong user on Twitter. “Still, they’re all in Mandarin pinyin. Unless you actually listened to them, you wouldn’t know what songs they were.”

In retrospect, given the controversies surrounding language use in Hong Kong, Apple made an obvious and avoidable error. It’s understandable why they would want to use pinyin, as there’s not a similarly standardized way to transliterate Cantonese into the Roman alphabet and translating the entire iTunes catalog into traditional Chinese characters is a daunting task.

Still, you can’t expect people to be happy with your product if they feel they’re having another language pushed on them, especially when they already feel like their language is threatened. Anyone with an in-depth knowledge of Hong Kong’s culture and history should have been able to point out the potential for problems. This shouldn’t be more than a bump in the road for Apple, but that’s because they’re Apple. A brand that doesn’t inspire the same level of cult-like devotion might find its Hong Kong expansion plans in trouble!

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