Mind your language: Construction in progress

Zachary Lowell
City's tourism authorities in combination with language experts and local residents, go out hunting for misspelled and otherwise incomprehensible signs in English and Chinese.
Zachary Lowell

In just a few months’ time, Shanghai will host the China International Import Expo, a major trade event which is expected to draw large crowds of overseas participants and visitors. As readers of Shanghai Daily will surely know, the city has pulled out all the stops to make sure everything is perfect for the event.

One of the latest steps in the city’s preparations saw tourism authorities, in combination with language experts and local residents, go out hunting for misspelled, mislabeled or otherwise incomprehensible signs in English and Chinese.

In one example cited in a report by Shanghai Daily, an escalator at the Shiliupu Pier on the Huangpu River was found with a sign reading: “Please Attention the Frequency Acceleration.”

Needless to say, such a phrase is grammatically problematic to the point of being nonsensical. In this case, a translation and interpreting professor working with inspectors suggested replacing the sign with a simple “Watch your step.”

Inspectors also visited airports, transport hubs, hotels and major commercial streets to uncover other similar problems, and vowed to carry out further inspections later this month to ensure that all identified signage errors are fixed.

Cultural mash-ups

Such attacks against ill-worded signs are nothing new. I can recall similar eradication efforts against Chinglish in the lead up to both the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. In the intervening years, local authorities in Shanghai and elsewhere have attempted to further root out English misuse through various campaigns, many of them focused on tourist attractions and high-traffic areas.

To be honest, I’m of two minds when it comes to attempts at exorcising Chinglish.

On the one hand, I often find certain mistranslated signs to be fun and endearing cultural mash-ups which “reward” those who can understand the original Chinese text.

They give Shanghai (and other parts of China, for that matter) a sense of character and charm; while the “best” examples can have a strange poetic quality in their disregard for connotation and syntax. I know that many other foreigners “cherish” Chinglish for similar reasons, even if we may laugh at certain unintentionally-humorous mistranslations.

On the other hand, not everyone in Shanghai wants to ponder the linguistic implications of mistranslated signs and texts — most would probably prefer clear, accurate information which allows them to get on with their lives and their business.

Of course, making the city’s signs and slogans intelligible will obviously take time, as mislabeled, mistranslated or otherwise poorly-worded signs are still quite common. The next time you withdraw cash, you may notice that you are using a “Cash Recycling Machine.”

Signs warning of wet floors may tell you to “fall down carefully.” Restaurants and businesses are also frequent offenders against the conventions of English etymology.

My favorite wonton shop, for example, sells delicious wonton as well as “ravioli blunt.”

In another unfortunately common species of error, dried food items often contain English expletives too vulgar to be mentioned here. The list of errors both minor and egregious could well go on, but I’ll stop here as readers should have no trouble conjuring up their own “favorite” mistakes.

While the examples mentioned above may be amusing to those of us who are accustomed to local life, they could just as easily be confusing and irksome to short-term visitors who have neither the time, the energy nor the interest to decipher sub-par English. Businesses and brands that deal with foreign clients should also be supported in raising the quality of their English signs and texts. Perhaps native English-speakers with Chinese knowledge (they do exist) could even be consulted as well.

I’m guessing this isn’t the last strike against Chinglish that we’ll see in Shanghai. But as officials and experts spruce up the city’s English skills, with good reason, I would also say that some unintentionally-humorous mistranslations could still be beloved by many.

Entire books, websites and social media accounts are filled with the world’s love for bizarre and humorous signs.

Other places in the world (including India and South Africa, to name just two places that come immediately to mind) have embraced their own idiosyncratic forms of English as part of their local culture. Maybe there is still space for Shanghai to do the same, while still pointing the way toward a more decipherable future.

The author is a former copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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