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In China, signs translated into English baffle


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    Incense filled the street by the fish

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Of The Brand And Yak

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Monopoly Horn Comb

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Yak meat direct

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Yak meat supermarket

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    chongqing Slavor Church

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Ideal Fast Food

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Veteran barbecue

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Cordyceps Drug Store Sales

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Red grass buy horn Monopoly

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Yak Angle Comb Boutiques

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Tibetan Technology supermarket

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

Kai Ryssdal: Back before the Beijing Olympics, there was a park in the city honoring China's ethnic minorities. The Chinese Ethnic Culture Park is the proper English translation. Unfortunately, sign makers over there don't have quite as good a command of English as they think they do. So on local signage, it was "Racist Park," instead.

"Chinglish" is the term ex-pats use for that. It's the kind of thing that turns signs on a wet floor, for example, from "Beware of Falling" in Chinese into "Fall Down Carefully" in Chinglish. The government's doing its best to get rid of Chinglish in the big cities, but as tourism rises in the rest of the country, Chinglish is far from a dead language.

Marketplace's China Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports.


Rob Schmitz: The waterfalls and turquoise lakes of Jiuzhaigou attract millions of tourists every year.

That's why I came here, too. But I got distracted by the town's business district. It was chock-full of signs in Chinglish. I spent the evening going door-to-door, reading dozens of them.

We're now in front of a store called Red Grass Buy Horn Monopoly. It's closed. And I'm wondering what they sell.

Chinglish comes in many varieties. Sometimes poetic. The name of one restaurant here is Incense Filled the Street by the Fish. Sometimes you can sort of guess what they were after, but they didn't quite get it. Like the shop called Veteran Barbecue.

But then there's the Chinglish that makes no sense at all. It's as if a dictionary threw up a random sampling of its contents onto a sign. That's the category that Red Grass Buy Horn Monopoly falls into.

A smiling man named Wang owns the shop next door, a place simply called Yak Meat.

Wang: As for my neighbor's sign, we have no idea if the English is correct. I'll have to tell them their sign is confusing. They sell yak-related items like yak horn combs and things like that.

Yak horn combs? Maybe they're better off with a Chinglish sign.

Oliver Radtke: A lot of these signs are not actually meant to be understood and to be read by foreigners.

That's Oliver Radtke. Mr. Radtke is at the University of Heidelberg finishing his PhD in, I kid you not, Chinglish. That assures him life-of-the-party status at every academic conference he attends.

Radtke says as more Chinese travel around their own country for the first time, they enjoy seeing signs in English, no matter how badly mangled that English may be.

Radtke: They are breathing a supposed kind of internationalism or cosmopolitanism, which works because the English language competence with national tourists is still pretty low.

Yeah, but don't these businesses care about getting it right for their English-speaking customers? As Radtke tells me, getting it right is oftentimes an afterthought in China, unlike the West.

Radtke: We're big, big masters of planning everything and thinking everything through before we actually lift a finger. In China, I think it's the complete opposite. You just go.

And shopkeeper Wang says that's what happened in Jiuzhaigou.

Wang: The government requires us to display the name of our store in Chinese, Tibetan and English. I'm pretty sure the Tibetan and the English are incorrect.

Ah, so the English signs are required by the local government. Across the street is a shop called Tibetan Technology Supermarket. I ask the shopkeeper, Zhai Dejun, who he paid to translate his sign.

He says he didn't have a choice. The only translation service allowed to do business in Jiuzhaigou is the local government. And that is something everybody understands.

In Jiuzhaigou, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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Hi,guys,here comes the Chinese. I'll solve the "Red Grass Buy Horn Monopoly" puzzle.

The original store name in Chinese is "红草地牦牛角专卖店" and the proper translation is "Red grassland yak horn store"."Red grass" meaning red grassland is a place called Songpan grassland in Aba,Sichuan province.It's been called red grassland because the China red army(today's PLA) come cross there during their so called long march in 1934. By "buy horn monopoly",I think the translator means the a store sells mainly horns. If you come to this store,the products you can buy are mainly horns.Monopoly here means exclusive.

It's a direct translation from Chinese with a little grammar mistake.

Anyone learning a new language will make unintentionally humorous errors, which constitute what linguists refer to as "interlanguage." I think we should be a little more culturally aware and sensitive. How many English speakers could function adequately in Mandarin? I also found it ironic that, in a report on linguistic inaccuracy, Rob Schmitz mangles English: it's "whom he paid to translate his sign," not "who."

I was somewhat shocked and quite distressed that the light-spirited story had the important lead buried in the last moments of your report. This is a story about government corruption and bullying of the community businesses, not a cute story about 'lost in translation' as it seemed to be. Also a bit surprised that my comment seems to be the only one following this notion, which does not in the least make it less valid.

Enjoyed your piece on Chinglish and I recommend the book by that title written by Oliver Radtke whom you referenced. I bought it a couple of years ago in Shanghai and it contains many more examples. Translations from English to Chinese can also be amusing. I remember a bilingual sign in Macau promoting 'bungee jumping'. the literal translation in Chinese is 'stupid pig jump'

Everyone talks about job growth, but how is that to happen? Everything at the store is made in China or another country outside the U.S. If I quadruple my expenditures at the store, almost no U.S. jobs will be created. Why aren't we talking about this? Americans need to understand that they need to actively seek U.S. products, even if they cost more. If your neighbor is unemployed, he has no money to buy your products/services and soon you will be unemployed as well.

Sounds like they need some government accountability.

Few considerations for "Chinglish" vs "Engrish"

Looking at the number of Google search results:
- "chinglish" returns ~1,230,000 results
- "engrish" return ~4,270,000 results

When looking at urbandictionary.com:
- the definition of Chinglish has 155 thumbs up and is defined as "Speaking both English and Chinese in one's sentences."
- the definition of Engrish has 1,668 thumbs up and is defined as "A form of English characterized by bad translation..."

Loved your story. Can't help but think Chinese tattoos on American bodies is in some ways the corollary to Chinglish store signs. At least the shop owners in Jiuzhaigou have an excuse for the poor English they are forced to display...

Well, it's a cheap laugh to make fun of people who are trying to write in a foreign language that is radically different from their own.

Is the flip side of it Westerners having Chinese characters as tattoos that don't have the intended meaning?

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