Uncle! Or let's make that, 叔叔!

More

In response to widespread popular demand, I will admit: screwed-up translations of Chinese into English can be very funny!  The G-rated classic version is this one:



(That picture has been widely circulated; I found it here.) The R- and X- rated versions can be found in considerable detail here -- scroll all the way down and you'll see what I mean.

So what did I mean, in recently cutting some slack to the geniuses who produced the "Wet Turban Needless Wash" that I received on a recent Air China flight? Or the zillion other instances of laughable mis-translations into English I come across all the time in China. ("Please shit here" over a toilet -- not sure if it's a typo, or an instruction.) Only this:

When you're a native speaker of what has become the dominant international language,  there's something undeniably Colonel Blimp-ish in making fun of the locals for their flawed command of your own mother tongue. Especially when this is happening in their own country, and all the more so when the people doing the chuckling can't do as well in Chinese as the Chinese are trying to do in English. In my observation, the less effort an outsider has put into coping with Chinese language, the more likely he or she is to chortle at the embarrassing "Chinglish" signs. 

So just as a personal matter, laughing at someone else's mistakes in your (outside, Western, superpower) native language is not that charming a thing to do. 

On the other hand, 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.  I can't resist this example: when we lived in Shanghai, a local museum had a very evocative and politically daring exhibit about villages that were being drowned by the Three Gorges Dam. And on huge banners outside, in letters six feet high, it said: "Three Georges Exhibit." If they had shown the banners to anyone who actually spoke English....

Why does this happen? I wish I knew. In micro terms, it must come from rote reliance on dictionaries or translation software. For instance, the title of this post: the dictionary will tell us that  叔叔, shu shu, means an uncle. But of course it does not mean what "Uncle!" means in U.S. slang -- as any Chinese speaker would point out if you asked him to check out the title.  (For those who don't know, "Uncle!" means, "I give up! You win!")  In the larger sense, why so many people would so carelessly waste money and -- the real mystery, considering Chinese sensitivities -- so brazenly expose themselves to ridicule is a puzzle. Learning a language means being willing to make mistakes. That's different from presenting formal, error-filled material for outsiders to read.

After the jump, a sample (long) bit of testimony from someone who thinks it's time for a harder line on mistranslations -- and more laughing too.  To which I can only say, 叔叔!
___________________  


Gene Richards, an American now based in Chengdu, writes:


I can't agree with your acceptance of the Chinglish that is so common here.  I've been here for three years this trip, teaching at a private college in the suburbs of Chengdu, Sichuan (I've been coming to China since 1986). It's funny and deserves to be laughed at and criticized and the Chinese should be taken to task for the sheer volume of it, not to mention their unrepentant use of it.

I agree with you concerning foreigners' use of Chinese because my own Chinese is execrable. BUT, I don't publish it or use it for anything but survival, or making jokes with my Chinese friends, who already know how bad it is (I like to call little children "xiao liumang"). But, what amazes me is that large public institutions and corporations, like your example of the wet wipes, don't bother to ask a foreigner to simply review their publications or postings or advertisements. It would take only a few minutes to sort out the inadequacy of the translation - almost always Chinglish - that is, the direct word for word translation from Chinese to English, along with some poor choice of vocabulary items.

Is it a matter of expense? I think not as there are many foreigners that would be happy to oblige for a pittance, both here in Sichuan and I'm sure in the larger, cosmopolitan centers around China.

Could it be too hard to find a foreigner? Impossible as all the Foreign Affairs Offices in all the large cities know where ALL the foreigners are and whether they're teaching English or doing business here.

So, what is it? That's what we should be talking about. Our criticism should be swift and embarrassing, otherwise it will continue ad infinitum. Here in Chengdu, I get a kick every time I take the bus because they have a P.A. system that announces each stop, in Chinese and Chinglish! When they get to the English part, the obviously Chinese woman says the stop's name in Chinese and then after a momentary pause says loudly, "STOP!" followed by another slight pause before she says, "Please take care of your safety when getting off the bus." The "Stop" sounds like a warning! Would it have killed them, before installing this expensive system in preparation for an influx of visitors for the Olympics, etc., to have hired a foreign teacher (like me) to review their short announcement?!

I think I would have translated it as, "Approaching (name) stop. Please collect your valuables and belongings and watch your step when exiting from the rear door." AND, wouldn't that be great to hear an American's (or other native speaker's) voice on the bus.

I've only been to Japan in recent years and their mass transit announcements seemed much better. But then, they seem to care about their image around the world and trying not to embarrass themselves. And ... it's ... everywhere! It's on large billboards and all manner of signs, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines (even supposedly in English), signs around our university, bus stops, train stations, airports, TEXTBOOKS!!!

Oh, another thought. Could it be the super-nationalism that's rampant now? They just can't bring themselves to admit that their overall level of English is so bad that they need to ask a foreigner to help out? I hope this is not true because, in my experience in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, and China, the English here is generally better, especially among the last three. And the hours and money spent and commitment to English in the schools and universities is huge, and growing. But honestly, it could just be that they are too lazy to take the time to get it correct.

Maybe my biggest frustration is being a teacher and having to 'fight' against it so constantly. A few of the items are Briticisms, like 'dormitory' meaning 'room in a dormitory' or 'torch,' etc. But most is what the students' high school teachers have passed along because that's what they've heard. Even the university Chinese English teachers, my colleagues, use it. But at least they ask me whether something 'sounds right' or not. So, why such laughable Chinglish?

And, go ahead and laugh.


Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In