“This is (can’t use that word in an email title)!” (At Least in Hong Kong)

The release of the iPhone 7 and 7Plus in China, one of Apple’s top markets, caused a stir in Hong Kong. Social media lit up, and Apple took a hit.
Apple’s new product releases are always highly anticipated. They know how to build excitement for their brand as their new offerings enter the market, and they now do it around the world. The newest iPhone release was no different.

For Apple’s roll-out, the catchphrase “This is 7” was translated one way for the PRC, another way for Taiwan (where Mandarin is spoken), and a third way for Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong. It didn’t take long before comments started showing up online from

  • What does[sic] the new iPhone 7, Cantonese and anatomy have in common? #iPhone7 #Cantonese #livingnoodle
  • The new iPhone 7 marketing campaign slogan translates to something quite nasty in Cantonese Nasty Cantonese
  • Apple advertised their iPhone 7 to the Cantonese as “This is Penis.” So, I don’t put much stake in what they say.
  • The new iPhone 7 becomes the butt of a penis joke in Asia: In Cantonese, ‘seven,’ which is pronounced ‘tsat,’
  • iPhone 7 slogan hilariously translates as ‘this is penis’ in Cantonese
    Hilarious Cantonese … Oh the inanity!

The problem is the Cantonese word for 7, 柒(pronounced tsat). Tsat is also slang for penis in Cantonese.

The word isn’t as purely anatomical as it does in English. Rather, it can be used to talk about something extremely funny or mock a situation. You accidentally dyed your underwear red? That’s so tsat! You thought you were going to get the promotion because you sweet-talked the boss’s wife? That’s so tsat!

Needless to say, tsat isn’t the type of association Apple wanted for their new phone. Marketers all over the world commiserated—we’d all felt that pain! Every language company on the planet can tell a similar story about the one time they skipped a step and it cost them dearly. For any written text, it is extremely important to revise and check. For marketing texts and their translations, this goes double.

A text in the process of translation should move from translator to reviser to proofreader, all native speakers. A Cantonese speaker would have quickly pointed out the problem to Apple before the device was introduced worldwide.

A bit about Chinese

Chinese is not a phonetic language like English, for example. There is no alphabet where each letter has a specific sound (or set of sounds). The written characters used do not have a single correct pronunciation. Because there are numerous varieties of Chinese spoken through China, a character may have half a dozen different pronunciations.

A word may be said very differently in Mandarin and Cantonese. These pronunciations are often unintelligible to speakers of the other varieties, so the written characters, either Simplified or Traditional, are used to communicate.

China is one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet. It is the single largest media market in the world and has the largest online population. Although growth has recently declined, it is still staggering. According to research by the Boston Consulting Group and AliResearch, three factors contribute to this growth: increasing consumption driven by the rise of upper-middle-class and affluent households; the new generation’s sophisticated tastes and freer spending habits; and the growing role of e-commerce.

Within the next decade, more than three-quarters of growth will come from the burgeoning middle class. The taste for imported products is likely to expand.

Both importers and exporters on this side of the Pacific are watching carefully. The companies that adjust their playbook will reap the benefits.

This means that companies doing business in China have to get it right. They have to become conversant not only with the ins and outs of Simplified and Traditional Chinese and the complexities of spoken Chinese, but also with the culture, the colors, and the ideology of this large country with over a billion citizens making up more than 18% of the world’s total population.

Would you be interested in a graphic illustrating the complexities of Chinese?

Patricia May