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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
... 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,
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.
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.
why such laughable Chinglish?
And, go ahead and laugh.