What's in a name? The story of Ground Zero

What's in a name? The story of Ground Zero


Back in 2004 I started to travel seriously in North Asia. It didn’t take me long to realise that if I was to do business there, then I was going to have to think about translating my company name into a number of local languages.

My company name – Ground Zero Limited – is not easy to explain. When I set up my strategic marketing consultancy in 2000, the term ‘ground zero’ was a useful way of describing the centre of rapid or intense change, and working from first principles or ‘square one’. The subsidiary and rather technical meaning of the point at which an explosive device detonates didn’t seem to be a problem. I was happy to have found a way of communicating through my company name the need for fundamental rethinking that successful strategy development requires, along with an implication of urgency or importance.

Then came September 11, 2001 and almost overnight Ground Zero came to mean a smoking hole in the ground in the middle of Manhattan. At the time I toyed with the idea of changing my company name, but luckily the few years immediately following 9/11 coincided with my working overseas for a couple of other organisations. Ground Zero stayed safely at home.

Fast forward to 2008, and I was back in North Asia, this time travelling under my own company name. What was I to do? Translations of Ground Zero into Korean and Japanese were achieved though simple transliterations, and I could have done the same for Chinese. I approached the NZ Translation Centre (NZTC) for advice.

I learnt that there is a concept in Chinese Buddhism called 凤凰涅磐 (feng huang nie pan), roughly translated as ‘phoenix-nirvana’. It couples the idea of the phoenix reborn in the fire and the Buddhist goal of escaping the earthly cycle of death and rebirth. My translator at NZTC suggested this concept as a possible translation of Ground Zero – one that captured the notion of fundamental rethinking along with the idea of something new arising from the ashes.

The suggestion couldn’t have been more appropriate. Not only does this translation encompass both the pre- and post-9/11 meanings of Ground Zero, it does so in a way that acknowledges the importance of Chinese culture and philosophy. For some of the more senior Chinese politicians and business people I meet on my travels, this is an important bonus. For me, it’s a perfect illustration of the way thoughtful translation adds value to New Zealand businesses – not least my own.