Weird Signs

Andrew Jacobs' article on Shanghai's efforts to unmangle Chinglish generated tremendous interest — for several days it was the most e-mailed NYT article.  The Chinglish fervor also spawned a broader interest in strange signs from all over the world.  Several friends have called to my attention this wonderful collection of bizarre notices, placards, and postings in the Times that were sent in by bemused travellers.

About number 63 ("Exterminate Capitalism Lobster Package; Tiny Dish of Chef's Sincerity"), Ben Zimmer says, "'Tiny Dish of Chef's Sincerity' I can sort of understand, but 'Exterminate Capitalism Lobster Package'??"  I agree with Ben that the second part is intelligible enough, but how do you get from Tāotiè lóngxiā cān 饕餮龙虾餐 to "Exterminate Capitalism Lobster Package"?  The answer is that there is no way you can get from there to here.  Fair enough, lóngxiā means "lobster," and cān in this case signifies a complete meal, i.e., a "package."  But Tāotiè is the name of an ancient mythological monster (often translated as "glutton").  Since Tāotiè is a bisyllabic morpheme (neither tāo nor tiè means anything by itself [there are plenty of such bisyllabic morphemes in Old Sinitic]), it is absolutely impossible to break Tāotiè down into anything that might mean "Exterminate Capitalism."  Therefore, my conclusion is that somebody was playing around with whomever was responsible for preparing this menu and mischievously provided an absurd translation, perhaps with the intention of poking fun at the Chinese Communist system which has given rise to such luxurious and fancy dining practices as reflected in pretentious menus of this sort.

Number 137 ("Mixed sea food Iraq government office surface" [Google Translate gave me "Sam Sun Iraqi government face") surely must throw everyone who sees it for a loop.  The solution, however, is actually fairly straightforward.  Sānxiān Yīfǔ miàn 三鮮伊府面 may be broken down simply thus:  Sānxiān signifies "three fresh / seafood (ingredients)," hence the "mixed sea food," and Yīfǔ miàn refers to a type of noodles.  The mixup with the "Iraqi government surface / face" comes about this way: Yī 伊 is short for Yīlākè 伊拉克 ("Iraq" [and many other transcribed names, one of which I shall discuss briefly later in this post]), but it actually is supposed to be a Chinese surname, while refers to the mansion where a family surnamed Yī lived, but it can also signify a government office.  The problem with miàn being mistranslated as "surface" or "face" arises because the simplified character 面 collapses the two traditional characters 面 ("surface, face") and 麵 ("flour, powder, noodles") — which are exact homophones — into one.  This sort of mistake occurs constantly as a result of the confusion of simplified and traditional characters, and not just on the part of machines!

Now, since even few Chinese speakers know the etymology of the name Yīfǔ, it is nearly always merely transcribed as Yi (mein), e-fu noodles, yee-fu (noodles), yi (noodles), yifu (noodles), and so forth.  Only rarely does anyone have the temerity to attempt a translation of Yifu, and when they do, the result is usually some such howler as the one currently under discussion.  Here is a good entry on the origin of the name of this food item from a dictionary of Singlish:

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http://www.singlishdictionary.com/singlish_E.htm

ee fu noodles /ee foo, eː fuː/ n. [Mand. 伊府 Yīfǔ official residence of Yi: Yī a Chi. surname (see notes below) + fǔ official residence, mansion + Eng. noodles, a transl. of Mand. 面 miàn noodles (Chi.–Eng. Dict.)]  A type of Chinese noodles, dull yellow in colour, which are coiled into cakes, dried and partially cooked by deep-frying, causing them to retain a firm texture when remoistened and stir-fried. Ee fu noodles are often served at wedding banquets.
¶ It is said that ee fu noodles were created in China during the reign of the Qiánlóng Emperor [Mand. 乾隆: qián (arch.) male + lóng grand; prosperous, thriving; intense, deep] (18 October 1735 – 9 February 1796) of the Qing Dynasty [Mand. 清朝 Qīng Cháo: qīng unmixed, clear + cháo dynasty] (1644–1911) and named after the poet, calligrapher, minor painter and seal carver 伊秉绶 Yī Bǐngshòu (1754–1815) from 太宁 Tàiníng in 惠州 Huìzhōu, 广东 Guǎngdōng (Canton) Province, China. The story is told that Yi often had gatherings of the literati and other guests at his home to recite and compose poems. As his cook was very busy during these events, Yi suggested that he should make noodles out of flour, eggs and water, coil them into cakes, air-dry the noodles, and fry them before storing them. Thus, when Yi’s guests came, it would only be necessary to put the cakes of noodles into boiling water and add other ingredients to them. On one occasion, he served these noodles to fellow poet and calligrapher 宋湘 Sòng Xiāng, who found them delicious and asked him what they were called. Yi replied that these noodles had been created in his own household and had no name. Song then proposed that they be called ‘ee fu noodles’. See the Makan Time website (2004, accessed 11 April 2006) and the article “最滋味:伊面”,《广州日报》(“Most Flavoursome: Ee Noodles”, Guangzhou Daily Newspaper) (8 October 2005, accessed 7 September 2006).
It is possible that ee fu noodles are served at wedding banquets because the long noodles signify the length of the marriage and their stickiness the closeness of the husband and wife.
Known in Cant. as Ee Meen.
2001 Cat Ong (quoting Ase Wang) The Sunday Times (Sunday Plus), 11 February, P8 I love to eat Swedish meatballs with ee fu noodles.  2006 Foong Woei Wan The Sunday Times (LifeStyle) (from Straits Times Interactive), 8 October. The ee fu noodles with seafood and fried rice I ordered were just as outstanding.  2006 Wong Ah Yoke The Sunday Times (LifeStyle) (from Straits Times Interactive), 29 October. Even better was the braised ee-fu noodles with roasted pork, preserved sausage and vegetable ($20). It was an unusual combination of ingredients, which were not at all healthy. But they tasted so good. .. [T]he seafood eefu noodles ($22) were well-stewed, with the noodles soaking in a well-flavoured stock.

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Number 150. "Wikipedia fried with eggs" is an interesting case.  The same restaurant has mistranslated jīzōng 鸡枞 as "Wikipedia" at least three other times on their menu.  The correct translation of jīzōng is "termite mushroom." I suspect that someone may have been confused by the name (the characters could also be pronounced as jīcōng, and there are many different ways [probably topolectal] of writing the name in characters).  This may have led a collaborator in the translation to say something like "It's in Wikipedia" or "Go look it up in Wikpedia."  Thus "Wikipedia" becomes a sort of default translation for any term that one cannot find in one's dictionary.

Although the marvelous NYT collection described above demonstrates that no country has a monopoly on strange signs, for sheer frequency and whimsicality, Chinglish takes pride of place.

To add to my delight, Gloria Bien sent me some of her own favorites, including an ad for a luxurious home furnishings line called "Ilinoi" 伊力諾依.  This string is composed of characters that are frequently used for purposes of transcription and does not make any sense as a phrase or a sentence.  "Ilinoi" looks suspiciously like "Illinois," yet one cannot be sure, since the proper pinyin for those four characters would be Yīlìnuòyī.  The company was founded by a woman who might be thought of as The Martha Stewart of China.  Who knows?  Maybe she spent some time in the Land of Lincoln, the name of which is transcribed variously in characters as Yīlìnuòsī 伊利诺斯, Yīlìnuò 伊利诺, Yīlìnuòyī 伊利诺伊, and so forth.

More to come.

1. HP said,

May 14, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

Can someone explain (1) to me? What is "weird" about a sign advertising a support group for people with mood disorders? Granted, my Spanish isn't very good, but I'm not seeing anything strange or funny there.

2. Kym said,

May 14, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

@HP: I really doubt such a group in English speaking countries would seriously call itself Neurotics Anonymous.

3. maidhc said,

May 14, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

4. George Amis said,

May 14, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

I've seen signs on petting zoos that correspond very closely with 70. No Adults Unless Accompanied by a Child. Maybe I'm missing something. Of course it would be funny if it said No Adults Unless With Child.

5. Chris said,

May 14, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

"Talk to Me — God" (Philippines): I've seen similar billboards in the USA, whose intention is to convey that God would like it if people talked to him more (i.e. prayed). The "— God" is the signature to the note God is (notionally) sending.

6. Craig said,

May 14, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

@Kym, except that Neurotics Anonymous was founded in Florida in 1964, per this 1970 Time Magazine article. Quote:

Suicide Attempts. Miracle or no, Neurotics Anonymous, a nonprofit self-help program for the emotionally disturbed, can justly claim a modest success. It was founded six years ago by Grover Boydston, a Florida psychologist who, like all members, is generally known by first name only. N.A. now has 5,000 members in 250 chapters from Hollywood to Haifa. As with nearly everything else about N.A., the figures must be taken on faith. Noses are casually counted, and any member can open a new chapter of the group any time he cares to.

7. HP said,

May 14, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

Thanks, Craig. I wasn't aware of a USian foundation for Neurotics Anonymous, but it makes sense. I'm not a great fan of twelve-step programs in general, but I also know that for people living in poverty, conventional psychiatric medications and psychotherapy are beyond their means. Plus there is a strong social stigma attached to mental illness (hence soledad is listed alongside depresion, and nerviosismo appears with ansiedad). Something is better than nothing.

As an educated, middle-class American with a number of neurochemical and endocrine disorders, the rank privilege of including this sign along with innocent and charming ESL errors really rubs me the wrong way.

8. J. Goard said,

May 15, 2010 @ 4:09 am

#50 "Each hour takes about one hour" is a pretty run-of-the-mill translation error.

관람시간은 약 한 시간입니다.
gwallam-shigan-eun yak han shigan-i-mnida

The first 시간 should be translated as "time". There's nothing special crosslinguistically about using the same term for a period of time fixed by absolute length and an otherwise bounded period of time, or time in general. In English, I think we could say

Friday happy hour is from 4 to 6.

without much problem.

The puzzling thing here is that the sign seems to be about Korean language (tour commentary?) beginning at 20-minutes past the hour (except for 17:00, and last admission time changing according to sunset). Why would non-Korean speakers care about this, and why only the last line?

9. D.O. said,

May 15, 2010 @ 4:28 am

Re 53: This Limpopo safari website promises hamburgers, russians, and fish & chips under the Takeaway rubric. [Insert any number of appropriate jokes] I don't think it refers to the same place as the photo on the NY site, because it is Chantall's on the photo and Zobra Cafe on the Limpopo website. Though "hamburgers", "russians", "take aways" (in slightly different spelling) are featured in both places. And one of them has just "chips", while another "fish & chips".

If you want to visit the place and inquire here's how: Zorba Cafe– for the best fish & chips in the Lowveld – every one knows how to get to this suburban hot spot in extension 8. Follow the Loerie signs and turn right into Grey Street.

The most famous Russian food, beef Stroganoff, is not a good fit for a little fast food place. Another one, pelmeni, is more fitting, but I am at a loss why anyone would like to eat them in the South African oasis.

10. Sili said,

May 15, 2010 @ 9:01 am

70. No Adults Unless Accompanied by a Child (England)

This is hardly surprising. There are stories of paediatricians being attacked because people thought they were paedophiles. It was mocked in a satirical cartoon at some point (2D TV?) where a Ghost of Paedophilia goes around throwing out baseless accusations. I only recall the guy who was attacked by an angry mob for wearing speedos – obviously making him a pedo.

11. E. Sperling said,

May 15, 2010 @ 9:29 am

Re. # 76 (now 78):

I can't figure this one out. The Tibetan is something like "We must protect the blue skies and clear waters and build a beautiful new home [i.e., as in homeland]." I think mistranslation in part comes from rendering 携手 as "in our hands" along with the addition of a "without" that is nowhere in the Tibetan or Chinese.

12. Victor Mair said,

May 15, 2010 @ 10:47 am

Further on the trilingual (Tibetan, Chinese, English) sign (it's now #74, just a moment ago it was #80; they keep changing the numbers around!).

The Chinese version may be translated thus:

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With all our hearts, together let us protect the azure sky and blue-green waters;
Hand in hand, let us create a glorious homeland.

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So that can't be the reason for the peculiar, unsettling last line of the English.

Nor, as Elliot Sperling's translation shows, can the Tibetan version be held responsible for the English.

Here's Robbie Barnett's version of the Tibetan:

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"By protecting equally the blue sky and the clear water/rivers, [we] have to make a beautiful home-place."

Or it could equally mean "we want to make…"

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And here is Donald Lopez's version of the Tibetan, followed by a most trenchant comment of his own:

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Protecting the blue sky and the clear waters,
We must create a beautiful home.

I have no idea how they came up with the English unless a local deity, one with a strong sense of irony, intervened.

====

13. Victor Mair said,

May 15, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

And here are Nathan Hill's transcription and translation of the Tibetan sign:

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It looks to me like-

gnam sngon chu dangs mnam srung bas te/
mdzes pa'i khyim gzhis gsar skrun byed dgos/

The bas te part is a bit odd.

Protecting blue sky and pure water together, it is necessary to remake
the homeland which is beautiful.

====

It's seems more and more as though the "-out" of the last line is a suspicious addition.

14. Victor Mair said,

May 15, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

@J. Goard

Thank you so much for your excellent comment on the Korean airport notice. By way of supplement to what you have written, I add this note from Daniel Sou:

====

Well the commenter is right with the translation. But the question about the Korean (tour commentary)? God, that is just POOR Korean that even I cannot understand. Literally, it means, “Korean enters every hour past 20 minutes (Except 17:00).” What does this mean? No one knows! Maybe the sign wanted to say, “A Korean translator enters every hour past 20 minutes,” but what kind of institution has such service for Koreans in KOREA? I have no clue.

15. mollymooly said,

May 15, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

It's meta-amusing to see which mundane British and Irish signs Americans have found amusing.

16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

May 15, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

Coram's Fields (which is on the site of the famous Foundling Hospital founded by James Coram) has had the 'No adults unless accompanied by a child' rule for a long time. While the rule makes perfect sense, I guess it is striking if you haven't seen it before, being a reversal of a more normal rule.

17. J. Goard said,

May 15, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

God, that is just POOR Korean that even I cannot understand. Literally, it means, “Korean enters every hour past 20 minutes (Except 17:00).” What does this mean? No one knows! Maybe the sign wanted to say, “A Korean translator enters every hour past 20 minutes,” but what kind of institution has such service for Koreans in KOREA? I have no clue.

Glad to hear that Daniel shares my confusion about the verb 입장하다 'enter, be admitted into' having 한국어 'Korean language' as a topic. I tried to interpret the topic as something other than a subject, to get a reading something like 'As for the Korean language, (visitors) will be admitted every hour at 20 past the hour.'

Daniel's rendition as “Korean enters every hour past 20 minutes (Except 17:00).” suggests that the whole sentence is messed up, but 매 시간 20분에 (lit. 'every hour 20-minutes-at') is the normal way I know to express 'at 20 minutes past the hour', as in e.g. a radio schedule. Google confirms this for me. So the confusion is about the topic 'Korean language'.

I guessed that it must be some kind of tour with headsets for the commentary. (Plus, it's obviously something outdoors, like a temple or zoo. Victor, where did you get the idea it was an airport?)

18. Andrew Brown said,

May 16, 2010 @ 4:03 am

A "humped zebra crossing" is perfectly sensible: a Zebra crossing is a pedestrian crossing with blak and white stripes; a humped one has a speed bump on it further to slow down cars. There's one about 300m from me right now. There used to be a sign outside Priorsfield, a girl's school in Surrey housed in what had been the Huxley family home where Aldous was born, that said "Girls' school / beware hump".

19. Victor Mair said,

May 16, 2010 @ 8:06 am

@ J. Goard

Mea culpa! That was just a surmise on my part.

The following contribution comes from an East Asian language specialist who wishes to remain anonymous:

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The Korean sign is a tour schedule for a museum or some other public attraction. The partially visible row at the top has four columns labeled "Korean language" and to the right of it "Japanese language"–you can make out the three kanji from their bottom 25%. The last two columns presumably are for tours in other languages, probably English and Chinese.

The three Korean sentences at the bottom of the sign read:

"Korean language tours run 20 minutes after every hour (except 5 PM)."

"Final tour time changes depending on time of sunset."

"It takes about an hour for each tour"

So the English should read "Each tour (not 'hour') takes about 1 hour." Someone misspelled it.

20. Terry Collmann said,

May 16, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

Mollymooly: indeed. "Dead slow" is common in the UK in places such as docks. factories and freight yards, and "heavy plant crossing" is still, AFAIK, regularly seen where a construction site is bisected by a road.

21. Victor Mair said,

May 16, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

From Matthew Kapstein:

====

I think the Tibetan phrase mnyam srung in the
first line has been throwing people off. It means
"protect together" and it seems that others
take it to mean "protect equally the blue sky and clear water."
But on analogy to expressions such as "mnyam las",
"cooperative/collaborative work", I think the point is
that "we must together protect the blue sky and clear water."
This would correspond to the "hand in hand" in the
second line of the Chinese. The second line in Tib. means
"we must create a beautiful new homeland/ecosystem."
"Khyim gzhis" might be a Tibetan calque for ecosystem;
Tib. khyim = Gr. oikos.

22. JimG said,

May 16, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

I grant that a number of the signs were funny because of poor translations, local usages of words or names, or unusual local conditions. However, I thought that submission and inclusion of some of the images (and the accompanying comments) had more to do with the ignorance of the observer and editor regarding things that might be universal. Some examples:
140 — the Swiss sign warning of a particularly steep downgrade, showing a picture of the truck's overheated brakes (not the tires, as captioned) setting fire to the tires and then the tractor or trailer. Recent shifts in trade patterns have meant that truck drivers from non-mountainous regions might end up on alpine highways.
145 — the Aussie warning against driving through flowing water. I've seen such signs many times in the USA, and we still get an occasional drowning of some Darwin Award Winner whose car ends up in deep water or upside down in a water-filled ditch.
146 — I've never been to Thailand, but I /have/ lived in places where the men's and women's WCs existed in addition to pissoirs.
163 — NZ kiwi sign warning bicyclers against taking a spill. The sender probably never rode a bicycle across rutted pavement or a rail crossing, where the wheel might suddenly fall into a transverse rut. Obviously, Americans don't travel much by bike.
164 — A store in Grenada doesn't take back raincoats that visiting cruise passengers buy, carry around town in case of rain, and then want to return as unused.
I felt that many of the submissions communicated much about the sender's ignorance, the NYT's entire display was casting ridicule at 'dumb foreigners' and much of it wasn't really funny.

23. Jon Weinberg said,

May 17, 2010 @ 8:14 am

I'm with JimG: Having scrolled through a part of this collection, the basic message seems to be: "Non-native speakers often have an imperfect grasp of English." That's true but not especially funny. (And re: #33, "Usual Route" signs are ubiquitous in Japanese temples and shrines popular with tourists. It's entirely comprehensible as a way of pointing out the recommended route through the attraction, chosen because it allows one to see the entire grounds without having to double back. So what's the problem?)

24. Victor Mair said,

May 17, 2010 @ 8:38 am

More from Matthew Kapstein:

====

For "homeland," with the political connotations it often has, Tibetans use pha yul "fatherland", and not usually khyim gzhis as we find here, for which the Tibetan-Tibetan dictionary definition is"permanent habitation."

But if jiayuan can't mean something like ecosystem, I would agree that it's unlikely that khyim gzhis is being stretched to mean that.

25. astrange said,

January 25, 2011 @ 2:36 am

A year later, I might as well note that many of the Japanese signs are fine translations with weird original messages. I couldn't understand what half the またやろう／家でやろう signs meant on the trains in Japan.