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[Say What?]

When English gets lost in the translation from Chinese, the result is a funny hybrid known as "Chinglish." So why aren't Chinese officials laughing?

By Andrew Jacobs in Shanghai, China


For English speakers whose Chinese isn't up to speed, daily life in China offers a confusing array of choices. Banks have machines for "cash withdrawing" and "cash recycling." Restaurant menus offer dishes like "monolithic tree mushroom stem squid." And for those who eat too much, extra-large clothing is available in "fatso" or "lard bucket" sizes.

Visitors to China get a smile out of such mangled words and phrases, which are known as "Chinglish." But Chinese officials aren't so amused: For them, the fractured English is a national embarrassment.

"The purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing," says Zhao Huimin, director general of Beijing's Foreign Affairs Office, who has been leading the fight for linguistic standardization.

With China's emergence as a global economic power, more Chinese students are learning English, which has long been the international language of business. And as China's major cities strive to become more user-friendly for English-speaking visitors, the government has mounted a campaign to make English signs grammatically correct and easier to understand.

In Shanghai, China's most populous city, the Commission for the Management of Language Use worked for two years to correct English-language signs and menus in time for the "Better City, Better Life" Expo 2010, which opened in April and has drawn more than 60 million visitors.

With an army of 600 volunteers and a committee of fluent English speakers, the commission replaced more than 10,000 public signs, rewrote historical plaques, and helped hundreds of restaurants revamp their English menus.

The campaign was modeled partly on Beijing's herculean effort to clean up English signage for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which led to the correction of 400,000 street signs, 1,300 restaurant menus, and such gaffes as Racist Park, a cultural attraction that has since been renamed Minorities Park.

But though government officials may be proud of their effort to eliminate mangled English, fans of Chinglish hate to see it go.

Oliver Lutz Radtke, a former German radio reporter in China who may well be the world's foremost authority on Chinglish, says that China should embrace it as a dynamic, living language.

"If you standardize all these signs, you not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the park but you lose a window into the Chinese mind," says Radtke, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinglish at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Blame the Software

Even without the government's campaign against it, Chinglish may already be on the decline: Many of the examples on display today can be traced to a bad but very popular translation program that has been widely used in China. But improved software, along with the growing zeal for grammatically correct English, are slowing the output of new Chinglishisms.

Jeffrey Yao, an English translator and teacher at the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University, is another leader in the campaign against Chinglish signage.

But even as he eliminates the most glaring examples by government mandate (businesses dare not ignore the language use commission's "suggested" fixes), he has mixed feelings. Although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical.

"Some of it tends to be expressive, even elegant," Yao says. It "provides a window into how we Chinese think about language."

For example, whereas park signs in the West command people to "Keep Off the Grass," Chinglish versions are more poetic: "The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don't Disturb It" or "Don't Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain."

Yao points out that the Chinese linguistic mentality helped create such expressions as "long time no see," a word-for-word translation of a Chinese expression that became a mainstay of spoken English.

But Yao has his limits. He showed a sign from a park that includes prohibitions on washing, "scavenging," clothes drying, and going to the bathroom in public, all rendered in unintelligible and—in the case of the last item—rather salty English. The sign ended with this humdinger: "Because if the tourist does not obey the staff to manage or contrary holds, Does, all consequences are proud."

Yao had the sign corrected but was irritated to find that lots of troublesome signs had slipped past the commission as the Expo approached, including a cafeteria sign that read, "The tableware reclaims a place." (Translation: Drop off dirty dishes here.)

"Some Chinglish expressions are nice, but we are not translating literature here," he says. "I want to see people nodding [because] they understand the message on these signs. I don't want to see them laughing."

For additional examples of signs seen in China, click here to watch this New York Times slideshow.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, November 8 & 22, 2010)