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On translation proposal, a word to the wise

By John Lydon | China Daily | Updated: 2015-03-31 08:12

Every year that I've been in China, I've been surprised by how quickly the atmosphere changes after Spring Festival from cold and gloomy to vibrant. The days get palpably longer, winter's chill melts away in the surplus of sunlight, and the air itself seems pregnant with new life.

In the compound where I live, gardeners are out each day now watering the grounds. Any moment, one feels, new sprigs of grass could push their heads from the warmed, softened earth to greet the sun.

It's understandable how such fledgling life would inspire a nurturing, protective instinct, hence the tone of many signs at the edge of grass fields in China. One in my compound reads, "Walking on the grass will kill it". Though relatively restrained, how starkly it contrasts with the prosaic "Keep off the grass" notices common in my country, the United States!

In China, such signs are warmer, human, even to the point of being anthropomorphically tinged:

"Do not disturb

Tiny grass is dreaming"


"I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face".

Granted, that last one would have benefited from the nurturing of a sympathetic editor. Its humane sentiment is half undone by its faulty word choice and wobbly syntax.

Such lapses are not uncommon in Chinese notices translated to English. Language errors creep in unnoticed, yielding puzzling, funny and even obscene messages.

A sign in a public place that means to say "Work in progress" - often seen as "Men at work" in the US - reads "Execution in progress".

A highway sign intending to warn against drunken driving says, "Do drunken drive".

A notice that literally translated from Chinese says "Scenic area, pay attention to safety" inexplicably appears as "Beware of missing foot".

Another that in Chinese literally says "Ethnicity park" is translated as "Racist park".

Let's forgo examples of obscene mistranslations, but most of them arise in relation to foods and involve the Chinese character for gan - dry - or choose vulgar terms in reference to human anatomy or bodily functions.

Recently, at the annual legislative gatherings known as the two sessions - another rite of spring - a member of the advisory body known as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference brought up the sometimes lamentable state of English translations on public signs.

"For instance, ... 'service to corporate customers' becomes 'service to male business'," wrote Tang Jin in a proposal suggesting that central government departments should establish standardized translations of common public signs.

Tang makes a good point: Government would do well to eliminate any chance of unintended levity reducing important messages to ridiculousness.

But as a former owner and operator of a successful translating bureau, allow me to make a suggestion. Be certain to include - and heed the advice of - qualified native speakers of the target language in reviews of those translations.

After all, the "Racist park" example is in itself a perfectly logical error that could easily slip by someone whose knowledge of English is solely academic.

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