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Chinglish has life, don't trample on it
By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-04-15 07:33

Oliver Radtke believes Chinglish mistranslations may be fun, but are not to be made fun of.

Chinglish has life, don't trample on it

More than that, they have become serious business for the German Sinologist, who believes the portmanteau adds spice to the alphabet soup that is English today.

"My message on Chinglish is: It should be conserved.

"It shouldn't be treated as a cheap joke for foreign tourists to laugh at but as a cultural treasure," said the 32-year-old multimedia designer, who frequently visited China for almost a decade before moving to Beijing in 2007.

"I'm trying to challenge the notion that there is only one type of standard English - the English that's spoken in America or in the British Isles - which is shortsighted, because Chinglish is already being used by millions of people to communicate with one another."

So, since 2005, the scholar has collected more than 5,000 specimens of "the wonderful results of an English dictionary meeting Chinese grammar" on his website and has published two books on the subject.

The website receives about 10,000 visitors a week, he said, and his first book, Chinglish: Found in Translation, has sold nearly 50,000 copies since it was published in September 2007 by Gibbs Smith Publishers. His new book, More Chinglish: Speaking in Tongues, hit the shelves this month and is available in Beijing at the Wangfujing Bookstore and The Bookworm.

"The two books are unique in that they go beyond the fun book you pick up at the airport in that they talk about this approach of conservation, the academic value of Chinglish, the creative combination of English and Chinese, and why we should keep it," Radtke said.

Patricia Schetelig, who works for the German Embassy in Beijing and regularly contributes to, said she appreciates Radtke's approach to Chinglish.

"What's important to me is that he's not making fun of the way things are translated," she said.

"There are other websites doing similar things, but they're making fun of Chinglish or saying it shouldn't be done this way."

Some of Radtke's favorite phrases include: "Welcome To Presence", "Wash after relief", "Little grass has life, please watch your step" and his first specimen, which sparked his interest in Chinglish in 2000 - "Don't forget to carry your thing".

Another darling is "STELIOT" - the mirror image of "toilets". Radtke said he loves this example because it came from the sign-maker's presumption that since Chinese characters were once written from right to left, English letters could be, too.

Part of his mission, Radtke said, is to preserve rapidly disappearing Chinglish specimens.

He was anguished while watching the government replace Chinglish signs with standard English ones in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

"That was a sad day for me and a sad day for Chinglish," Radtke said.

But American David Tool, who has been closely involved in cleaning up Chinglish in Beijing since 2001, disagreed.

"(Chinglish) takes away from the aesthetic, educational and cultural value we want these signs to provide," the advisor to the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Committee said.

"We get distracted when we're trying to explain something. It's not dealing with the issues with respect."

Radtke said that while Chinglish is swiftly vanishing from the public sector, it's still thriving in the private sector.

"Restaurants, private institutions, little shops - Chinglish will never die there. There's a massive amount of Chinglish being produced every day, and I'm happy about that."

He said he has contacted local governments, sign-makers and park managers to suggest they change their signage "back to something more creative and more local" but has received little response.

Radtke believes the fact that both English and Chinese are second languages to him is a boon, rather than a bane, to his understanding of Chinglish.

"Because I have this outside perspective, I'm far away from finger-pointing."

He added that he asks native English speakers to assess the Chinglish he collects.

Radtke said many Chinese web users were furious when he first started his blog and he often received hate mail.

"But that's all changed, because more people understand my point, which is that Chinglish is a window to the Chinese mind for non-Chinese speakers and a cultural bridge between the West and China.

"It should be regarded with pride."