wtorek, 28 grudnia 2010

What is Chinglish?

“Slip and fall down carefully” is a common sign in China. It’s a great example of Chinglish, that is, ‘Chinese English’, words and phrases created by Chinese people trying to speak the English language. Similar examples of English written in a somewhat more creative manner, shall we say, can of course be found all over the world. But given that there are more people learning English in China than there are mother tongue speakers of English in the world, examples of Chinglish abound. And with more and more of them trying to use English to cater to the influx of foreign tourists, some howlers are inevitable.

A whole book could be compiled simply listing the variations of “please do not walk on the grass”: “Please don’t trample me”; “Tender fragrant grass, how hardhearted to trample them”; “Protect greening so as to endow benefit to descendents”; “Show mercy to the slender grass”: these are all signs seen in Chinese parks.

The advent of electronic translation aids such as Google Translate has not reduced the amount of Chinglish. On the contrary, it has probably increased local translators’ confidence that they are producing acceptable English. Simply enter the Chinese phrase, click ‘translate’ and bingo, you have “Civilized behavior of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping”, a phrase bound to leave the tourists more perplexed than civilized.

The spell checker is normally regarded as our friend, but it can be a treacherous one. It might explain the following Chinglish sign: “The breast of prayer animal region. Please take good care of your children”. Which actually sounds more frightening than the intended “beasts of prey”.

Sometimes the fault does not lie with the translators, but with the printers. Totally ignorant of English, and trying to do their best with the formatting, they make signs like “Pirates Hip” for a fairground boat ride. Given that Chinese is not written with spaces between words, they are just not sure where one word starts and another ends: “Frenchbrandfor men swear”. Slip-ups in commas and spaces are forgivable, but perhaps they should pay attention to this promise included on a sign entitled “our commitment to tourists”: “Punctuate, and no delay more than 30 minutes unless there is an exception”.

Cultural differences are the reason behind some Chinglish. After all, English has a whole host of euphemisms to talk about what goes on in bathrooms. One Chinese toilet frequented by this author was rather blunt, posting the signs “urine place” and “The Bowels” for number one and number two respectively. And to ensure visitors kept the urinals clean, they added an additional instruction: “approaches conveniently enters the civilization”.

Anyone who has tried to order from a Chinese menu is grateful when the restaurant provides an English translation. Of course, sometimes, the Chinglish version is not much help: “…orange juice, lemon juice, strange juice…”. Reading the Chinese, assuming you can, is enlightening, as the Chinese for “kiwi” literally means “strange fruit”. And don’t be surprised if you find “flesh and bones” between the “fried enema” and the “selection of cold cats”.

Picking the right English name for your product is harder than it sounds. Don’t be surprised when not many foreigners buy “Pansy” underpants for men, or “Damage” condoms.

The Chinese authorities are aware of this of course, and in the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo in 2010 tried to clean up poor English, with mixed success. Their concern is that Chinglish causes China to lose face. While there may be some truth in that, we can be sure that Westerners trying to produce Chinese signs for visitors would create even more amusing “Englese”. Actually, it is admirable that the Chinese recognise the magnitude of the Great Wall of the Chinese language, a formidable barrier to communication, especially in written form. So we bite our tongues and hide our smiles when we see “pets, fires, arms, explosives, inflammables and stinking things are not allowed in the hotel”.

Although it is true that Chinglish can sometimes be incomprehensible, it is often delightful. While the Chinese work hard to eradicate it, we raise a (genuinely overheard) toast to the charm of Chinglish: “up your bottoms!”