Posted by: Sam Olsen | October 26, 2011

Chinglish: He’s in my behind

The mixing of the English and Chinese languages started in 1637 when English traders reached Canton. The fun hasn’t stopped since.

Given the differences in the two, it is hardly surprising that mis-translations happen. When they do, they can be some of the most eye-catching words ever written in English.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by the Beijing Government. In a land where face is everything, getting it wrong is not admired. It was in this spirit that Chinese officials carried out campaigns to reduce Chinglish in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

Soon after the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing in 2001, the Beijing Tourism Bureau established a tipster hotline for Chinglish errors on signs, such as emergency exits at the Beijing airport reading “No entry on peacetime”. In 2007, the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program (BSFLP) reported they had, “worked out 4,624 pieces of standard English translations to substitute the Chinglish ones on signs around the city”, for instance, “Be careful, road slippery” instead of “To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty.” BSFLP chairperson Chen Lin said, “We want everything to be correct. Grammar, words, culture, everything. Beijing will have thousands of visitors coming. We don’t want anyone laughing at us.”

Reporting from Beijing, Times writer Ben Macintyre lamented the loss of signs like “Show Mercy to the Slender Grass” because, “many of the best examples of Chinglish are delightful, reflecting the inventiveness that results when two such different languages collide”.

Writer James Fallowes, who wrote an article on Chinglish at the Shanghai 2010 Expo – where banners advertised the Three Georges Dam exhibit rather than the Three Gorges – asks what the reason is for these mistranslations. Although it may not be too PC to chuckle at Chinese translators getting it wrong – my Mandarin for a start could launch a thousand laughs – so many of the errors are so simple that even if they had shown them to just one native English speaker then they could have been resolved. As Fallowes remarks, “it truly is bizarre that so many organizations in China are willing to chisel English translations into stone, paint them on signs, print them on business cards, and expose them permanently to the world without making any effort to check whether they are right.”

But the chances of total success in defeating humourous Chinglish are slim, given the differences in thinking that are required to make each language work. For example the use of the word ‘charm’ to describe the 2008 Olympics strikes English-speakers as quirky, but it was still used on the official website. And this means that hundreds if not thousands of scholars had looked at the word and decided that it was suitable.

So until that impossible day arrives, it is worth looking at some examples of Chinglish gleaned from the web (Language Log is a good source of these):

  • Braised enterovirus in Clay Pot appears on a Chinese menu for ganguo feichang (干锅肥肠; literally “dry pot fatty intestine”), which is a stuffed sausage popular in Sichuanese-Hunanese cuisine. This example occurred following the Enterovirus 71 epidemic in China, and mistranslates feichang (肥肠 “pig’s large intestines [used as food]”) as chang[dao] bingdu (肠[道]病毒 “intestinal virus”).
  • Fried enema on a menu mistranslates zha guanchang (炸灌腸 “fried sausage [with flour stuffed into hog casings])”. The Jinshan Ciba dictionary confused the cooking and medical meanings of guanchang “(make) a sausage; (give) an enema”.
  • Do not want is a mistranslation of “Nooooo-!” exclaimed by Darth Vader in a bootleg version of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, a phrase which has since become an internet meme. A bootleg copy of the film entitled “Star War – The third gathers: Backstroke of the West” was bought in China, and featured erroneous English subtitles that were machine translated back from a Chinese translation of the original English, i.e. a re-translation, which was posted online due to its humorous use of poor English. Having gone viral, the phrase has spread as a meme used on messageboards online.

This last entry is really quite incredible, and is the source of the title of this post. The link goes through the mistranslated subtitles frame by frame. You really, really have to have a look.

Meanwhile, here are some Chinglish signs round the back of Tiananmen Square that kept us amused on our recent trip:

The fish can be quite persuasive

Beware the Happy Mondays



Many thanks to Riccy S for this similarly-themed but stupendously incorrect image:



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