IBM’s “THINK” motto

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Photograph taken by Hervé Guérin in the main lobby of IBM France:

First we have to determine what IBM means by its famous slogan.  Here are some of the many meanings of “think”:  “ponder; reflect (on); believe; consider; cogitate; feel; deem; hold; suppose; imagine; remember; recall; conceive; deliberate; recollect; evoke”, etc.  Thomas J. Watson, who led IBM from 1914 to 1956, first used this motto in December, 1911 at a sales meeting of a predecessor company, and he explained it as meaning “take everything into consideration”.

Grammatically, the French “pensons” means “let’s think”, but I’ll leave it to the Francophones who are listening in to tell us what special nuances that may convey.  I personally do not believe that this is the Cartesian existential “je pense, donc je suis” (“cogito ergo sum”; “I think, therefore I am”).

Now, the crux of this post is that the Chinese rènwéi 认为 (“consider; deem; hold; take to be”, etc.) is wrong.  It seems strange to see rènwéi 认为 (“consider; deem; hold; take to be”, etc.) being used as the Chinese translation of the IBM motto “THINK”.

When I was in high school, I was in awe of IBM as being at the vanguard of science.  I subscribed to their magazine called THINK and devoured its every word, thinking / believing that it put me in touch with the most profound minds of the day.

Used as the IBM motto, “THINK” is a verb in the imperative mood.  It bespeaks Thomas J. Watson enjoining his colleagues and employees to use their brains to improve the quality of their work and the productivity of the corporation.

Rènwéi 认为 (“consider; deem; hold; take to be”, etc.) is a verb all right, but it’s the wrong verb.  It doesn’t convey Watson’s injunction to take everything into consideration. Rènwéi 认为 is usually used in sentences like this: “Wǒ rènwéi tā hěn liǎobùqǐ 我认为他很了不起” (“I think he’s great; I consider him to be great”).  In other words, SUBJ V OBJ PHRASE / CLAUSE, where the V is rènwéi 认为 (“consider; deem; hold; take to be”) and the OBJ PHRASE / CLAUSE possesses verbal properties:

tā huì dāyìng 他会答应 (“he will agree”)
tā huì jùjué 她会拒绝 (“she will refuse”)
tā huì dǎyíng 他会打赢 (“he will win”)
tā huì shībài 她会失败 (“she will lose”)
tā hěn piàoliang 她很漂亮 (“she is beautiful”)
tā hěn nánkàn 他很难看 (“he’s ugly”)

The IBM slogan, “THINK”, on the other hand, does not take an object.  It is just a simple command to someone to use their brain to perform a mental act.

Now, it’s very interesting that the IBM motto “THINK” is regularly translated as sīwéi 思维 (“thinking; thought; cogitation; ratiocination”) in Chinese, but I don’t consider this to be a good translation either.  Why?  IBM’s THINK is a verb in the imperative mood, whereas sīwéi 思维 (“thinking; thought; cogitation; ratiocination”) is a noun (those who maintain that Chinese has neither lexical words nor grammatical parts of speech should take note).

I have also seen the IBM motto “THINK” rendered in Chinese simply as xiǎng 想 (“think; think of; suppose; miss [someone / something]; wish; believe; feel [like doing]; would like”).  This is a verb, all right, but I don’t think that it captures the spirit of Thomas J. Watson very well.

REFERENCES:  photographs #3 and #8 here, and here.

So what should the IBM motto be in Chinese?  I honestly do not know for sure, but here are some possibilities (suggested by Hervé):

sīkǎo 思考 (“think [deeply]; ponder [over / on]; reflect [on]; cogitate; deliberate”)
sīliang 思量 (“consider; turn something over in one’s mind; ponder; weigh and consider”)
kǎolǜ 考虑 (“consider; think [over / out]; size up; take into account; think about”)

These are mostly used as verbs, but can also sometimes function as nouns.

My own tentative favorite is xiǎngyīxiǎng 想一想 (“think about it; think it over; give it due consideration; give it a / some thought”), but that’s not very elegant.



37 Comments

  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:18 am

    Ah, hard problem. 動腦筋? A bit colloquial. 運神? A bit quirky. But in terms of proximity to THINK!, these seem better.

  2. Fluxor said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:39 am

    I’d go with 思想。

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 1:14 am

    sīxiǎng 思想 (“thought”) is usually a noun

  4. Joyce Melton said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 2:17 am

    If it’s hard to translate the ultimate in pithy slogans into another language, consider how hard it would be to translate the joke posters that appeared ten years later reading, “THIMK”.

  5. Edwin Schmitt said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 2:46 am

    As mentioned above it is more of a command. To me the better translation would be 想吧!It is capitalized after all. Also THINK was not meant to be elegant. The idea was as much (if not more) related to ideas of business and capitalism than it was to a romantic sense of discovering the unknown. Check out Peter Little’s history of IBM in Toxic Town, particularly pages 46-47 that discuss the origins of the phrase.

  6. julie lee said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 4:02 am

    I was shocked to see THINK at IBM translated as 认为 “deem” (in the picture). There are lots of Chinese engineers at IBM. Why didn’t they have it corrected?

    I like Victor Mair’s 想一想 and Jonathan Smith’s 動腦筋. I offer 想想, an abbreviation of 想一想。

  7. Richard Man said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 4:31 am

    How about 想想, or 要想

  8. Will said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 4:32 am

    On my (Chinese) grandfather’s little IBM memo pad from the 1940s, THINK is replaced with 思 only.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Very nice, julie lee!

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    @Richard Man

    yes; no

  11. sqd said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    How about “谋”? It’s more “take things into consideration”. “想一想” and ” 動腦筋” is definitely too informal, at least, not the image that IBM want to establish in China.

  12. Cervantes said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:15 am

    Victor:

    Thomas J. Watson, who led IBM from 1914 to 1956, first used this motto in December, 1911 at a sales meeting of a predecessor company, and he explained it as meaning “take everything into consideration”.

    According to his biographers, Tom and Marva Belden, Watson elaborated:

    The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads.

    One wonders what Watson would have made of Lacan:

    We think we think with our brains but, personally, I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid. I do sometimes think with my forehead, when I bang into something, but I’ve seen too many electroencephalograms to believe that there’s the slightest trace of a thought in the brain.

    (This was at MIT in the mid-’70s.)

    Joyce Melton:

    If it’s hard to translate the ultimate in pithy slogans into another language, consider how hard it would be to translate the joke posters that appeared ten years later reading, “THIMK”.

    I remember those!

    I also remember Marvin Minsky, poking fun at IBM, writing it like this: “THIИK.”

  13. Eddie said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 11:15 am

    Perhaps 思考 would be better?

  14. jiyinyiyong said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

    Interesting post to read for me being a native Chinese.

    “认为” is used in express one’s opinions. We translate it to “think” but I guess it’s not you want. In modern Chinese(no a term, I just mean “modern”), we use “思考” for “think”. “思” or “度” was used in ancient Chinese. “想” is normally in speaking Chinese rather than in formal articles. For “think deeply”, the first words come to me is “深思” or “沉思”.

    If you mean “take everything into consideration” we may say “深思熟虑”, which is more a adj or a noun, though we sometime use it as a verb.

    I would suggest “深思” in this case.

  15. 峰 said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

    In my opinion, the most suitable Chinese translation is 聯想,but it’s the exact Chinese name of Lenovo, whom IBM has sold their ThinkPad line to. Maybe they just want to cut out any confusion between the brands, then finally put up this very remote translation.

  16. Pierre said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

    “Pensons” is a bit patronizing. It comes across as an exhortation to prayer. It is more imperative than “Think”: it implies that the speaker is urging the listeners to think with him right now, whereas “Think” is more detached and long-term.

    “Pense” (2nd person singular) would be better, except it uses the familiar “tu” form, which is not appropriate. “Pensez” (2nd person plural) could be either the polite singular “you”, or the plural, which is too diffuse.

    Perhaps the best translation consists of more than one word.

    On a lighter note, people forget the second part of what Watson said:

    “OR THWIM…”

  17. marc said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

    discussion on Hacker News is here:
    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13397528

  18. if said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    why not simply “思” ?
    which can express all the meanings mentioned

  19. amy said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    Another suggestion: 谂

  20. Brett said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    I was vaguely aware of IBM’s “THINK” slogan, but it drifted out of the popular consciousness a long time ago. When Apple created its “think different” ad campaign in the 1990s, the allusion to IBM was pretty tenuous. In fact, Apple later changed the slogan to the Mad LIbs form “V different,” where X could be pretty much any V.

  21. Junli Xiao said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    As a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan, I’d go with “想”.

  22. NatShockley said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

    “Pensons” doesn’t surprise me at all. As Pierre says above, the connotations aren’t quite the same as THINK, but it’s so common in French to express instructions in the 1st person, rather than the 2nd as is standard in English – and to a native English speaker like myself, it always feels patronizing, like you’re speaking to a child. But obviously to native French speakers it doesn’t seem so patronizing. For example, you’ll often see training courses with titles like “Je gère les déchets de mon exploitation agricole” (“I manage the waste from my farm”), where in English we would more likely say something like “How to manage the waste from your farm” or “Managing the waste from your farm.”

    There seems to be a certain aversion in written French to the 2nd person imperative especially. Companies are more likely to use the infinitive imperative form than the 2nd person, e.g. “Mettre la machine en marche,” which is also used in recipes. I’m not sure if this is because the 2nd person imperative is felt to be too direct and sounds rude, or is simply felt to be less elegant. In IBM’s case, however, “PENSER” would no doubt have been far too vague, as it has insufficient context to suggest the intended imperative sense.

  23. Marc said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 7:22 pm

    As always, Aretha Franklin has the last word.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vet6AHmq3_s

  24. The Black Smurf said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 8:07 pm

    The motto for IBM now is ‘OBEY’. There is a process and your job has been dumbed down to money level.

  25. yakult said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 2:59 am

    I think the closest Chinese translation to IBM’s ‘Think’ is actually Lenovo’s Chinese name – 联想. In other words, IBM got scooped three decades ago.

  26. philip said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 5:10 am

    @ Pierre _ in French would we not be better off with ‘Réfléchissez’?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    @yakult

    Good one!

    I often wondered where the Chinese IBM, i.e., Lenovo, got their Chinese name, Liánxiǎng 联想, which usually means “associate; association (of ideas / thoughts); mental association; connect in the mind” — noun or verb. It’s not exactly the same thing as “THINK”, but close enough.

  28. Pierre said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    @philip “Réfléchissez” is good, but it hints of admonition, it seems passive and meditative, like a schoolmaster reprimanding a pupil, “Think about what you’ve done”. I’m leaning towards “Penser”. The infinitive form declares an action, a state of mind.

  29. ConnGator said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    In Boca Ratorn on the little notebooks with THINK on them I used to see”

    OR THWIM

    Tough to translate….

  30. Kaleberg said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 12:57 am

    I was told that Thomas J. Watson developed the “think” slogan during his days at National Cash Register which was at the time run by John H. Patterson. Supposedly Patterson saw one of Watson’s placards with “think” on it and was so impressed that he put up signs saying “think” all over the NCR factory.

  31. Alyssa said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    For me, “THINK” can be a command to another person, but it also calls to mind someone talking to themselves – I often say “think think think!” to myself when I’m trying to concentrate. I’m not sure it’s possible to keep that ambiguity in translation (though French “pense” is awfully tempting) but it seems relevant. What do people say in Chinese when they want to remind themselves to stop and think a moment?

  32. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

    @Alyssa

    We would say “xiǎng yī xiǎng 想一想”, as I mentioned in the o.p., or “xiǎngxiǎng 想想”, as julie lee mentioned in a comment. These can be a reminder to oneself, as you suggested, or a command to others.

  33. ajay said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 5:17 am

    There seems to be a certain aversion in written French to the 2nd person imperative especially. Companies are more likely to use the infinitive imperative form than the 2nd person, e.g. “Mettre la machine en marche,” which is also used in recipes.

    The Marseillaise shifts from first person plural (“Allons, enfants de la patrie..”) to imperative (“Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos battaillons!”) and then right back again (“Marchons, marchons…”) and then leaps clear into the subjunctive (“…qu’un sang impur/ Abreuve nos sillons”). Which is just confusing.

  34. Hervé Guérin said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

    I’ve read many interesting comments.

    As a French native speaker, it is true that the 2nd person imperative with such a verb is simply to abrupt, sounding almost as a reproach.
    On the other hand, the infinitive without any complement is just too abstract.
    The 1st person might be OK, but too easily linked with ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ (cogito ergo sum).
    And it’s true, it’s becoming trendy in the consumerism novlangue (‘J’en profite !’ – ‘I use this opportunity’)
    So 1st person imperative is not so bad.
    The verb ‘penser’ itself is simply here the simplest and best choice (‘réfléchir’ is more restricted in meaning, and evokes a somewhat painful work of mind).

    As for the Chinese, I’ve read a comment (qwrusz) saying:

    This is a picture of the IBM France office. Why is Chinese even on the wall in France. How seriously was this planned.

    That’s the main issue. I guess that picking up Chinese here was meant to display some token of globalism using a mysterious script while evoking the future.
    In fact this inscription has been for display for may be 10 years now.

    What would be the better translation, I’m not a native Chinese speaker to tell, but 思考, 思, 思索, 深思 seem the better choices.

    And finally, as an IBMer I learned a lot about IBM’s history and its motto ‘to think’, with very interesting links.

  35. philip said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    hervé: what about ‘pensez-y’? Is that any better, or does it eve mean anything?

  36. Hervé Guérin said,

    January 19, 2017 @ 4:54 am

    ‘Pensez-y’, yes, ‘mais à quoi ?’. ‘Pensez-y’ assumes a concrete object (‘y’) to be thought of, of current relevance for both speaker and interlocutor in the context of current communication, not the case here, I think.

  37. Philip said,

    January 19, 2017 @ 7:30 am

    Hi Hervé – that is what I am trying to get at, but rather than a specific thing to think about, it is to think about ALL relevant factors in a decision. As in the original explanation … ‘and he explained it as meaning “take everything into consideration”.

    What about ‘pensez-en’ then?

    For me, but I am not a native French speaker, ‘pensons’ is too abstract. Also too inclusive … it is the boss, or the organisation, giving an order, an imperative, to the employees.

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