Combating the monolithic tree mushroom stem squid

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The New York Times reports on efforts by Shanghai officials to crack down on Chinglish, but the prospects are daunting:

For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”
Those who have had a bit too much monolithic tree mushroom stem squid could find themselves requiring roomier attire: extra-large sizes sometimes come in “fatso” or “lard bucket” categories. These and other fashions can be had at the clothing chain known as Scat.

Language Log's own Victor Mair provides expert commentary, explaining how such memorable Chinglishisms as "fried enema" have been generated by the Jinshan Ciba dictionary software. Victor's now the go-to guy for egregious Chinese-English mistranslations, and despite being inundated with Chinglish contributions via email, he still tells the Times that "If someone would pay me to do it, I'd spend my life studying these things."

I leave you with a photo taken by Ian Mair (no relation) in Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai.

[As Victor notes in the comments, make sure to catch the slide show of Chinglish examples accompanying the article.]

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33 Comments »

  1. JS Bangs said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    I'm guessing that the sign intends to say "No Fishing / Violators Will Be Prosecuted". Am I right?

  2. Outis said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 12:42 am

    I'd say this is a rather comprehensible case of Chinglish. There are certainly, many, many that are much, much worse.

  3. TB said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 12:48 am

    Was the tale in that article that "Long time no see" is a direct translation of a Chinese saying expression true?

  4. TB said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    I forgot the slash between saying and expression

  5. RS said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    What's wrong with "Jew's ear juice"? It's juice made from Jew's ear. That's less of a translation issue than the others, in my mind.

  6. mollymooly said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:22 am

    The photo text is quaintly unidiomatic but semantically transparent. Ditto times ten the "fatso" example.

  7. Buck Ritter said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    This sort of prescriptivism should not go unchallenged. Surely the Chinese know precisely what they mean by Jews-ear Juice and should not have our white man's meanings forced onto them.

  8. ECM said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    The Times article mentions something that few other commentaries on Chinglish do, when it quotes Jeffrey Yao's opinion that "although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical." Many signs that get translated comically are written very elegantly. Just take the example of 謝絕垂釣,違者重處 above–the language is extremely shu mian–written style, and really borders on literary style. But the reality is that the majority of visitors to China have little understanding of the stylistic conventions of written Chinese, and are very confused even if they have taken some classes in Chinese…Let alone the fact that it seems bizarre to us to mince words or write prettily on a sign where NO FISHING will do!

  9. Lugubert said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 5:28 am

    @ TB: "Long time no see" is a sufficiently legitimate translation of 好久不见hǎojiǔbujiàn.

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 5:45 am

    My favourite one of these not-wrong-but-still-odd translations is to be found at the back of the Forbidden City: "Writing on the ancient wall is a breach of civility"

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    @ JS Bangs: I think it's possible that they really mean "punished", not "prosecuted".

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    When I looked at the phrase "the disobedient," I found myself wondering if the Chinese original distinguished those who were generally disobedient (I would count myself in this group) from those who were disobedient in this context (which would exclude me, since I do not fish).

    Then I noticed that English warnings of "Violators will be x'ed" also employ such elision to no great effect. What we intend is "Violators of the aforementioned policy." That is not what we write, but we understand it, and only a teenager would use the ambiguity as an reason for (sorry) getting off the hook.

    Perhaps none of this matters, because actual legal statutes (at least in America) tend to be more specific: one does not get busted for violating a statute as posted (or even as not posted); one gets busted for violating a statute as it is inscribed in the prevailing code of law. (Speed limits may be an exception, though speed limit signs are seldom ambiguous, roadwork notwithstanding.)

  13. Axel Svahn said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    The case of The Jew’s Ear Juice is not as bad as it sounds, as jelly ear or "Jew's ear" is a type of fungus used in Chinese cooking.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auricularia_auricula-judae
    http://newatlasbev.com/450/juice/jews-ear-juice/

  14. KevinM said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    Angling is declined.
    Angle is inflected.

  15. JL said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    I once stayed in a hotel in Shigatse, Tibet, where the light switch for the bathroom was labeled "tosspot". Anyone want to hazard a guess as to how that might have happened? My understanding is that a "tosser" in British slang is a masturbator, hence, I suppose, that a tosspot is where one goes to masturbate. But checking online, I see that tosspot is a disparagng name for a person, not a place — roughly equivalent to 'wanker'.

    Any Brits out there who can solve this one for me? I actually have a photograph somewhere of the switch, which includes a label in Chinese, but I don't know if I can post pictures here, nor how to render Chinese characters on my computer.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Tosspot is also the name for a drunkard (the meaning goes back to 1560).

  17. TB said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    Lugubert, thanks!

    ECM, I remember seeing a sign in a Tokyo park that said,
    花を採るより
    心の花を咲かせよう
    That is, "Rather than picking the flowers, let flowers bloom in our hearts", which I thought was nice. There was no English translation there, though.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    The Times also has a wonderful slide show of some outstanding examples of Chinglish, including a few we've seen and discussed before:

    http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/05/03/world/asia/20100503_CHINGLISH-10.html

  19. Jason F. Siegel said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    The question of whether 'long time no see' comes from Chinese or some American Indian origin seems to be an open debate on the Internet. Any help from our esteemed LanguageLog bloggers?

  20. Ken Grabach said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    @ mollymooly, certainly the term 'fatso' is clear, and maybe to many readers 'lard bucket' would be, as well. That is an objective observation, not based on personal experience. Subjectively, however, one wonders how many potential customers are going to choose to purchase clothing labelled 'fatso' or 'lard bucket'. One wonders further whether it is clear which is the smaller size and which the larger.

  21. Ellen said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    I would say the 2nd half of the text is perfectly fine English. But "declined" in the first half is wrong.

  22. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 6:24 am

    "Lard bucket" is a fairly common derogatory term in British English. Rather famously, when the politician Roy Hattersley failed to show up for the filming of a topical news quiz many years ago, he was replaced with a tub of lard.

  23. Franz Bebop said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    If the languages were reversed — if the topic were comic mistranslations into Chinese on signage in the US — commentators inevitably would drift into mockery of Americans' supposed ignorance towards other cultures and laziness about language.

    Instead we get stupidly apologetic musings like this one: "Although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical." I'm sorry, there's nothing refreshingly lyrical about "slip and fall down carefully," that's just a bad translation, period, end of story.

    My response to Chinglish is exactly as unforgiving as it would be for comically bad Chinese written on signs and menus in the US: The first and only reaction, aside from laughter, is to ask the question: What kind of lazy jerk creates translations without bothering to ask a native speaker to check them? There really is no excuse.

    Message to Jeffrey Yao: Guess what, sometimes signs in English are creative, too, and a little anthropomorphising sign on the grass that says "Don't walk on me please!" is not a bad sign. Chinese is not the only language that allows for creativity. Chinglish is not about poetry, it's about plain old fashioned ignorance and laziness. If anyone should be insulted, it's English speakers.

  24. Michael said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 4:55 am

    The prize for Maintaining Moral High Ground Through Abusive Self-Certainty And Dubious Cultural Equivalencies goes to Franz Bebop! Proving once again that if you can compenstate for your affluent upbringing by feigning extreme outrage at minor issues, you're well on your way to leasing the friends you couldn't make on your own.

    In any event, the issue is self-resolving. Chinese translations will eventually be perfectly calibrated to our deilcate sensibilities, and then we'll all get to avoid reading through Edward Said.

  25. danny bloom said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    Although Andy Jacobs wrote that story from Shanghai for the Times, much of what the article said could also be applied to Japlish in Japan and Chinglish in Taiwan, to wit:

    http://pcofftherails101.blogspot.com/2010/05/tawian-tries-untangling-mangled-but-fun.html

    Taiwan tries untangling mangled (but fun) English — a story about Chinglish in Taiwan!

    Taiwan's Commission for the Management of Language Use’s mission is to get rid of Chinglish, which irks fans of the island nation's linguistic maladaptations: For English speakers with subpar Mandarin Chinese language skills, daily life in Taiwan offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “stinking tofu,” and "croaked frog"….

  26. danny bloom said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    On a related but different note: some language stuff here:

    Dear Editor [of local Newspaper in Taiwan,]

    On April 30, I was relaxing at home while watching CNN International
    interview Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou and saw the segment broadcast from
    CNN headquarters in Atlanta.
    President Ma, although a fluent speaker of English, got his grammar
    slightly wrong. No biggie. He wanted to say "Americans" (plural,
    with an s). But on CNN, he said "American" (singular), although I am
    sure he meant it as a plural term in the context of the question he
    was answering and in the context of his answer itself.

    He told CNN host Chritiane Amanpour, and his actual words are on the
    official CNN transcript: "We will never ask the American to fight for
    Taiwan."
    But of course, he meant to say, and what he really was saying, despite
    the grammar glitch: "We will never ask the Americans to fight for
    Taiwan."

    It's easy to make mistakes in a second language. I know, because while
    I speak French sort of fluently, my grammar is not very good. So while
    President Ma made a small, minor grammatical "faux pas" (that's French
    for "mistake"), it's entirely understandable.

    Sincerely,

    Dan Bloom

  27. danny said,

    May 9, 2010 @ 6:46 am

    btw, a top writer thinker on the East Coast is writing a blog about all this for his magazine blog, and he asked me:

    "Danny, re the Times Chinglish story, I
    wonder whether your experience can help explain why so many businesses
    didn't simply hire a native English speaker to provide translated texts or
    at least review translations."

    i answered: " THEY ARE LAZY AND TOO PROUD TO ASK FOREIGNERS FOR HELP. THEY THINK THEY KNOW ENGLISH WELL. THEY DON'T."

    he also asked: "Or is there really some ploy to get attention
    and become an attraction on the basis of the weird sign? "

    My answer: "NO. NOT A PLOY. SEE ABOVE."

    re "Or is there really some ploy to get attention
    and become an attraction on the basis of the weird sign? "

    I answered: " NO THEY DO
    NOT EVEN KNOW THE SIGNS ARE WEIRD. THEY ARE ONLY WIERD TO FOREIGNERS
    WHO SEE THEM. THE CHINESE DO NOT EVEN LOOK AT THE ENGLISH SIGNS. THEY
    DO NOT KNOW THEY ARE WEIRD. SO NO. NO PLOY. PURE LAZINESS AND PRIDE.
    THIS MUST CHANGE!"

  28. Caio said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    I don't know about Shanghai, where they do seem to have a lot of foreigners, but I'm living in a city in Jiangsu with about 30 foreigners (plus four in a suburb) and most of the English (and French and Italian) is absolute gibberish. By which I mean just words picked at random not meant to be a translation at all.

    They just like having foreign language writing around to look hip and modern.

    I've also never met a Chinese person in China who thinks their English is good. I work with one woman (now a very good friend) who wouldn't talk to me for months in English because she was so embarrassed. Then when she build up the courage it turned out that she was an extremely educated woman, well-read in western literature, whose English is near-perfect.

  29. Caio said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    That being said, there is one bit of Chinglish that does bother me: Why does every pack of cigarettes in China say "quit smoking reduces health risk". I've asked Chinese people and they just say "fashionable".

  30. Caio said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    And one more thing: when Chinese people are genuinely concerned about having some written English sound natural, they offer to pay me a lot to copy edit. There's no pride or laziness there.

    Some of the posters here really ought to learn to give the benefit of the doubt.

  31. HeyTeach said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    Didn't see it here, but you can link to pages and pages of this kind of stuff at http://engrishfunny.com/. That site has many more examples than the NYT slideshow.

  32. Michael Rank said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    I strongly recommend the Chinglish Flickr group
    http://www.flickr.com/groups/chinglish/

  33. Rudi said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 6:52 am

    I agree with Caio. I don't think it is a question of pride or laziness. They just don't regard this as that important because very few of the signs will be read by foreigners anyway. (At Chinese Immigration, where foreigners will definitely be reading the forms, notices etc, the English translations are much better)

    Also, the education system in China tends to create the belief that learning a foreign language is just about knowing what the translations of words are. A lot of Chinese people think that simply directly translating a Chinese sentence with the aid of a dictionary will do the job.

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