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In China, signs translated into English baffle

Rob Schmitz Aug 11, 2011
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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.

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