And Finally

Broken English

Street signs that get very lost in translation

Perhaps it should not be too surprising that a country that once declared war on sparrows might now choose to confront its own street signs.

But for the Shanghai authorities, the need is a pressing one. With 3.5 million foreign tourists expected for next year’s Expo there is genuine concern that the city risks creating a lasting impression with its poorly worded signage.

In fact, a city commission recently discovered that bad English was used on over 10% of urban signs. So a new rulebook has been issued to regulate translation and members of the public can also report mistranslations to a specially designated office.

Not before time, says Xue Mingyang, director of the Shanghai Education Commission. “A number of the English translations in public areas are quite baffling,” he told the China Daily.

Warning signs seems especially prone to error; from the more oblique (a hillside warning that reads “Take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty” or a riverside one to “Take care to fall into the water”) to the aggressively direct (“Ragamuffins, drunken people and psychotics are forbidden to enter”) on a notice at the entrance to the city’s Oriental Pearl Tower).

Then there are the translations in which a single mistake can inject hugely different meaning. The BBC was much taken with a hotel lift sign advising guests to “Please leave your values at the front desk,” for instance.

But Chinglish – the meeting of English words with Chinese usage – has its defenders too, says the People’s Daily. There is even a “Save Chinglish” group on Facebook, with more than 8,000 members.

Chinglish fans probably don’t need to be too worried about the clampdown. Beijing promised something similar in the lead up to last year’s Olympics. But officials soon chose to focus on signage near to Games’ venues, such was the scale of their task. The People’s Daily also wants to talk about Chinglish in a wider sense, and more in terms of the flow of words across two distinct grammars and vocabularies.

It thinks that at least 5% of newly added English words since 1994 have Chinese origins, for instance, although it can only provide a single example – “long time no see” – of pidgin that has made it into English usage.

“Chop-chop” (for hurry up), “No can do”, “Look-see” and “Where-to” probably count as additional phrases that have crossed the linguistic divide.

Then there are the terms that have made it directly into English (like typhoon, taipan, sampan and gung ho). So Chinglish turns out to be about more than street signs.

One further clarification, too. “Love you long time” has no Chinglish roots whatsover.

Most choose to source this rather insalubrious offer to a line in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, circa 1987.


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