Chinglish provides local color, but it’s time to fix the signs

By Ryan Thorpe Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/29 18:53:39

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

For most of my time in China, bad translations were a part of everyday life. Over the years, I have seen menus featuring poorly translated items like "Duck Exploded on Plate" and "German Abuse Sausages."

Even today, there's a large sign on Shanghai metro's Line 5 proclaiming: "If you cherish your life, stay away from the tracks," which is a rather good idea at first glance, but it does also imply that if you don't cherish your life, then stepping on the tracks might be permissible.

These poor translations frequently make appearances on social media - something for foreigners to laugh at - prompting the Chinese government to finally do something about its Chinglish problem.

A set of new regulations will create standardized translations for certain words and phrases on public signs and official publications in December.

Thirteen different industries from education to transportation to hotels will be subject to the new rules. But when I think of these rules, I find that my reactions are rather split.

As an expat who plays many different roles in China, I respond in different ways to the idea that Chinglish might be on the decline in the very near future.

As a traveler, this news is disappointing but useful. The strange translations of signs that I have seen as I have traveled through Asia provide local color and comedic interpretations.

While in South Korea, I saw advertisements for "Live Beer," which is a literal translation for beer on tap. It made me laugh at first, but as I thought about it, beer is indeed rather alive when it first comes out.

On a pragmatic level, though, more standard translations will provide foreign tourists a chance to travel more easily. Instead of seeing a fire extinguisher labeled as a hand grenade or being told to "Beware of Safety," travelers might have a better chance of correctly understanding the situation, which is important when in a foreign country.

As an English professional in China, I completely agree with such changes. When I lead workshops with English teachers-in-training, we talk about the need to find authentic situations and texts for students to read.

A double-standard is created when we tell our students that correct English usage matters, yet they are able to find incorrect usages all around them. For Chinese students learning English, Chinglish signage can potentially misrepresent the language and serve as a platform to misinform rather than assist in educating students.

My worries are more complicated as a professor, but they focus mostly on the function and history of the language. English in China functions as an intermediary language between users of many different languages.

In Shanghai, where people from around the world live and work closely together, English tries to help as many people as possible order food or understand signs.

Alternatively, Chinglish localizes a global language and regulating that emerging hybrid language could be seen as a way of turning into (rather than away from) hegemonic language practices.

But as a writer, I find that mistranslated signs carry with them an odd sense of beauty. A sign stating that a newly planted tree "is dreaming" makes me consider the odd personification.

Perhaps the crudest translation I ever stumbled across was in Beijing, where a handicap bathroom stall was labeled "Place for Broken People."

I saw that sign years ago and still vividly remember it. The pure shock of it burned into my memory. While the sentiment behind the translation was almost certainly unintentional and a result of some cheap computer translation rather than malice, the candor haunted me.

I always look for poetry or stories anywhere I might go, and the idea that some fictional place might exist for those broken by life lingered with me because of its unexpected poetry.

So while there might be some practical concerns that cannot be overlooked and signs will soon be more normalized, I would encourage you to take the mistranslated signs that you find and use them as an opportunity to find a more imaginative world.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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