No more corruption

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During the Arab Spring earlier this year, we noticed some demonstrators holding signs in Chinese that were not always idiomatic or were written incorrectly ("Maybe Mubarak understands Chinese", 2/10/2011; "Chinese sign in Benghazi", 3/21/2011; "Roll out of here, Mubarak", 4/3/2011). In the recent "Occupy Wall Street" actions, one marcher was likewise seen with a Chinese sign of dubious credentials:


Any fluent speaker of Chinese is going to smile at that sign, because it is like Chinglish in reverse. You can figure out what was intended, but it just doesn't sound right. With some Chinglish, it takes a huge amount of effort to decipher what was meant (e.g., "Fungus gnat turnovers", 8/11/2011), but that's not the case with this specimen of Englishy Chinese, whose message is fairly obvious, despite the unidiomatic expression.

To a Chinese reader, this sign seems at first glance to be saying  "There isn't any more corruption." The fact that the first two segments of the sentence are incorrectly worded throws into question the interpretation of the last part, fǔbài 腐败, which, depending upon the circumstances, might mean any of the following: "corruption, rottenness, decay, decomposition, putrefaction, putridity, putrescence, putridness, canker, depravity, staleness, leprosy", as well as their verbal and adjectival forms.

Let us first determine how the translation came about. If we enter "No more corruption" in popular online translating services, we get:

Google Translate: méiyǒu gèng duō de fǔbài 没有更多的腐败
(identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign)

Baidu Fanyi: méiyǒu gèng duō de fǔbài 没有更多的腐败
(identical with what's on the Occupy Wall Street sign)

Babel Fish: méiyǒu fǔbài 没有腐败 ("there is no corruption")

We have demonstrated many times how Google Translate has now become the standard online translation service for Chinese speakers who know little or no English, but want an English version of something in Chinese. It is now beginning to emerge that Google Translate has also become the choice for speakers of English who know little or no Chinese, but want a Chinese version of something in English. So we can't blame the wording of this Occupy Wall Street sign on the imperfect Chinese of an elementary or intermediate American learner. It is, rather, most likely to be attributed to Google Translate (or, far less likely, to Baidu Fanyi or similar service).

Enough of what the Englishy Chinese means to a Chinese speaker and how it came about. What should have been written on the sign instead?

Expansive, more vernacular versions might be something like these:

(wǒmen) bùyào tānwū
(我們)不要貪汙
"Don't be corrupt"  (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wǒmen 我們 at the beginning)

(wǒmen) bùyào fǔbài
(我們)不要腐敗
"Don't be corrupt"  (or "Let's not be corrupt" with the optional wǒmen 我們 at the beginning)

Succinct, more literary / formal versions might be something like these:

dùjué fǔbài
杜绝腐败
"Put an end to corruption"

xiāomǐ tānwū / fǔbài
消弭貪污 / 腐败
"Eliminate corruption"

(qǐngqiú) gēnzhì fǔbài
(请求)根治腐败
"Eradicate corruption" (the optional qǐngqiú 请求 at the beginning indicates that a request is being made)

Note that, in English "No more corruption", as in the numerous possible Chinese versions, what is being expressed is an injunction or exhortation — whether or not there is an explicit verb at the beginning of the sentence.

What's most amazing to me about this sign, though, is that the calligraphy is quite impressive! Of course, I've known plenty of Americans who don't know a single word of Chinese who yet become rather proficient at writing Chinese characters purely as an art form.

[Thanks are due to Anne Henochowicz, Zhou Ying, Sophie Wei, and Rebecca Fu]

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38 Comments »

  1. Carl said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    Are you being serious about the calligraphy? Aesthetics aside (I find it chicken scratched, and the stroke order is wrong in several places), it's missing strokes in 有 and 腐. Clearly, the maker of the sign just blew up the text from Google Translate and tried his best to make a mechanical copy of it onto the placard. Or do you mean "impressive" in the sense that, it's a wonder the bear can dance at all?

  2. Brendan said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 5:08 am

    There's now an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly working group on translation (I've been reading about it on Translationista), so hopefully this sort of thing will become less commonplace.

    For what it's worth, the slogan for one of the OWS marches — "Join the 99% of us who want to take back our country from the 1% who stole it" — struck me as an interesting translation problem, since the word order doesn't really work for Chinese. I ended up suggesting ""从1%的窃贼手中夺回属于99%民众的国土," but noting that "还我河山" might be a more traditional and less wordy alternative.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    @Carl "Clearly, the maker of the sign just blew up the text from Google Translate and tried his best to make a mechanical copy of it onto the placard."

    Not true at all. Look again. Compare this — 没有更多的腐败 — with what's on the sign. The person who wrote the sign was not simply making a mechanical copy of what is provided by Google Translate. His sign is written with a brush. I remain impressed that a person who may not know a word of Chinese could shape his brush strokes so well. Never mind a missing stroke here and there. This person has a talent for brush work!

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    To me it looks like each stroke has been outlined with a permanent marker and then filled in.

  5. Susan Bernofsky said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    Thanks for the shout-out, Brendan!
    Here are some other translations of the 99% slogan that have come in:
    加入99%的我們 搶回被1%掠奪的國家
    (This one comes from a Chinese-American writer who speaks Mandarin fluently but doesn't feel so confident about his writing skills.)
    1%人口的鉅富竊奪了美國!
    99%的大眾怎能不憤怒?
     請加入搶救美國大遊行!
    This one comes from a little group of Chinese poets who are all friends of the Chinese > English translator Steve Bradbury who worked with them on it.
    We badly need more translators in all the Asian languages to sign on to work with us. There are a lot of OWS materials we'd like to translate from English into as many languages as possible. If you're reading this and are able to join us, please get in touch!

  6. Joshua T said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    I'm with Henning Makholm — my impression was permanent marker, not brush. I would presume that the creator's computer displayed Google's translation with a "serif" font, of course. To work from the "sans-serif" calligraphy but to recreate the brush shapes that well would suggest some past work with brush calligraphy.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Any fluent speaker of Chinese is going to smile at that sign,…

    I'm amused by the assumption of literacy in that statement. From what I understand of history it wasn't all that long ago, historically, when literacy wasn't so universal. Yet these day, we are so accustomed to nearly universal literacy that we talk of speaking a language when we mean reading it. Yet, my impression is that it's not safe to assume that, in New York, anyone who speaks Chinese can also read it.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    It is interesting, at least to me, that like in the Middle East, street protesters are motivated to try to express themselves in multiple languages. Maybe this is asserting, what is felt to be, a universal point of view.

    In this case, I don't think they are protesting about the Chinese government or appealing to the Chinese people.

  9. Svafa said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    I agree with Carl on the sloppiness of the calligraphy. I'll grant that, if done with a brush, the brushwork does look to have potential. However, the hard edges at the end of strokes, and especially those first two, have me doubting it was done with a brush (or at least with single strokes).

    In addition to Carl's complaint (I could understand someone missing the stroke in 腐, but in 有?), the sign would appear to demonstrate a lack of basic knowledge on Chinese brush strokes. It appears as though the brush was lifted at every change in direction. For instance, it looks as though he has eight brush strokes in 多 and six in 有 (which would be correct, except he's missing a stroke).

    If he (or whoever wrote the sign) looked a little into how to do bends and hooks the sign would look great (apart from the translation, that is), but the separated strokes are distracting, especially when so obvious (as in the fifth stroke, now sixth and seventh, of 多).

  10. KeithB said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Maybe he copied it from someone's tatoo. 8^)

  11. Eric said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    I'm looking closely, and now concede it may not have just been done with your basic, standard-issue Marks-A-Lot – I think it's like one of those brush pens. But it is fairly obvious he's copying typewriter style characters ("Song", I think it's called?) most likely off a computer screen or print-out.

    Also, can a Portuguese speaker tell us if the sign in the background ("Não mais a [á?] corruppção") is grammatical?

  12. Eric said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    (minus 1 "p")

  13. marie-lucie said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    Any protest movement nowadays is viewed on TV all over the world. If signs are all in Arabic, Chinese, Ukrainian, Swedish, etc, they will be totally opaque to most of the world, while protesters want the want the world to know what is happening within their country. The protesters here deserve praise for not making their signs monolingual in English. Mistakes of translation and/or spelling are forgivable in this context, more so than in a commercial or administrative context.

  14. Mark said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    "No more corruption!" is an interesting speech act, in that it's not the standard kind of imperative that has an implied subject (it doesn't mean, "You bankers, stop being so corrupt" or even "Society, have no tolerance for banking corruption"). Rather than being a command to an agent, it is a demand that an agentless state of affairs obtain: the speaker is demanding that there be no more corruption. It's rather like "Let there be light."

  15. Will said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    It seems to me more a statement of desire than a imperative:

    [We want] no more corruption!

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    This picture was taken within walking distance of the homes of tens of thousands of NYC residents who are native speakers of various Sinitic languages, many of whom are presumably literate in Mandarin as rendered in the relevant type of hanzi (I myself am not competent to tell whether this sign is in simplified or traditional or what). I assume none of them were consulted, presumably because the demographics of the protesters are quite distinct from those of the city.

  17. yybb said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    Let me offer my translation for the intended "No more corruption": 不要再贪了 (Do not corrupt any more).

  18. Josh said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    Isn't 副乱 a more accurate translation of rotten, in the sense of "rotten food"?

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I'm not sure it's just demographics. Would you knock on someone's door, go up to someone in a park, walk into someone's business, and ask them to translate a political slogan for you?

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    With no certainty that they're literate in the target language, I meant to add.

  21. ahkow said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    Did Chinese calligraphy here. This looks like some kind of permanent marker, you can't quite produce lines that straight and thin with a typical brush. Horizontal and vertical "brush"-strokes are also consistently thin, which is quite difficult for an amateur to do with a brush, for characters this large (you try it!).

    As many have pointed out, the script used here is also from a computer typeface like Song (Mincho in Japanese; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ming_(typefaces)). Notice the very pronounced triangles at the end of strokes, thin horizontal lines, and thicker vertical ones.

    Protesters of the Occupy [insert American city name] movements could do well to just political movements in Hong Kong or Taiwan to find out how to construct idiomatic slogans.

  22. Craig said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    Being a non native speaker of Portuguese I am uncertain, especially with an overwhelming lack of colloquial usage, but the portuguese sign also comes off to me as awkward. Knowing that it's an English speaker's translation, you can get exactly what the mean, but I would use "Basta a corrupção!" or "Se acabe com a corrupção," for "No more corruption" Otherwise it seems to translate more to "Corruption no more"

  23. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    In French it would be "Non à la corruption!" (short for the full sentence "Nous disons Non! à la corruption").

  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    Interesting discussions about whether the calligraphy on the sign was brushed or printed, and what instrument was used. Some progress has been made from the initial comments. But questions still remain. For example, so far as I know, Google Translate does not produce characters in pseudo-brush-written font. So how and where did the person who wrote this sign get them? He / She would have had to take the GT output and run it through some website or software that converted the plain, printed GT forms into brush-like forms. That takes some effort! Or he / she would have to look them up in a dictionary or other reference work that provides the more ornate forms.

    Everyone agrees that the person who wrote the sign is NOT very literate in Chinese (the missing strokes attest to that, as does the unidiomatic quality of the wording) — and probably not literate in Chinese at all, or only minimally so. And yet, whoever wrote the sign took exceptional pains to create graphs that **look** as though they were produced by a brush. I believe that he / she did so out of respect for the writing system and the people who use it.

    As for whom the sign is intended, it is first of all intended for Chinese people everywhere who might see it, whether on the streets of New York or, via television, in Sinophone communities throughout the world, including China. It is another instance of respect to Chinese people shown by the signmaker. He / She is acknowledging their existence and their importance. Since he / she is manifestly a social activist, he / she may also be making a statement directed to the mercantilist oligarchs in China. This is not just about Wall Street, he / she is saying; it is about people all over the world who manipulate and hoard money.

    Finally, as for why the signmaker didn't care enough to ensure that the sign was written in proper Chinese, I submit that the mystique of Google (and Baidu, for that matter) is sufficiently awesome to lead the nonspecialist into believing that it is virtually infallible. One of the purposes of these posts on Language Log is to educate the public into a realization that this is not the case, and that humans who do know both languages well must be consulted before one puts / holds up a sign in a language with which one is not familiar. That goes for speakers of English, Chinese, and all other languages.

  25. David Branner said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

    @Victor Mair: "Google Translate does not produce characters in pseudo-brush-written font. So how and where did the person who wrote this sign get them? He / She would have had to take the GT output and run it through some website or software that converted the plain, printed GT forms into brush-like forms."

    As long as you have Unicode enabled on your system, your browser will generally display Chinese with whatever fonts it can find that contain the characters in question. Getting from that output to the sign shown would seem to be a simple process.

    "as for why the signmaker didn't care enough to ensure that the sign was written in proper Chinese, I submit that the mystique of Google (and Baidu, for that matter) is sufficiently awesome to lead the nonspecialist into believing that it is virtually infallible."

    Another way to say this is that we can easily believe a language we don't know is more like those we do know than it actually is, so without the humbling experience of having made serious mistakes we are unlikely to believe that an available piece of software doesn't translate correctly.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:49 am

    @David Branner
    "Getting from that output to the sign shown would seem to be a simple process."

    Really? Doesn't seem simple at all. Even if someone can get GT to output traditional pseudo-brush-stroke characters (David Branner: "…your browser will generally display Chinese with whatever fonts it can find that contain the characters in question" — that doesn't sound like a reliable or straightforward procedure to make it happen!), getting from there to the sign shown in the photograph is by no means "simple".

    I should also note that the larger one writes characters, the more difficult it is to keep them in the proper balance and proportions. For a tyro, the characters on this sign are surprisingly well-proportioned.

    I know lots of people who have been studying (and teaching!) Chinese for 20, 30, or more years who would have to spend a lot of time and effort to produce a sign that looked that good (though they are unlikely to forget those two missing strokes). I can't understand why it is so hard to grant that whoever wrote that sign — an obvious neophyte for the reasons I've mentioned before — did make a special effort to make it look good. It would have been much, much easier simply to take a magic marker or big crayon and write a bunch of lines all the same width (as one does with a pen or pencil) and forget about trying to replicate brush strokes.

  27. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    The sign might be appealing visually for some, but it simply doesn’t work for those of us into calligraphy. It seems clear to me that each stroke wasn’t a “stroke” at all but was done with a series of movements (probably with a marker as Makholm said), which takes it out of the domain of calligraphy (which is a trace of individual gestures) and into the domain of drawing. What’s more, the presence of Sòngtǐ/Míngtǐ typographic/block-print features (like the form of the water radical in 没, or the scale at the top-right of 更) in a handwritten form is very jarring for an eye used to the specifities of East Asian calligraphy (it feels more or less as the letters of a child blindly copying printed block characters with serifs).

    You can tell he put effort into it, but I wouldn’t call this sign impressive calligraphy. In fact I wouldn’t even call it bad calligraphy. It’s a (more or less competent) reproduction, in drawing, of Sòng printing.

  28. Jessica said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    For the next person wanting to copy Chinese calligraphy, with or without the help of Google translator:

    http://www.chinese-tools.com/tools/calligraphy.html

    (Although whatever font it is that my google translator uses for simplified Chinese characters in Google Chrome looks more like his sign than any of these calligraphy styles.)

  29. Yosemite Semite said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    @ David Branner

    My experience with iGoogle or Google Translate is that they display the translated language in question in whatever font is used in the text boxes for input and output. Those are the very simplest fonts available on the system, and the input/output system doesn't seek out any other fonts. It uses the predefined font only.

    In documents which you are displaying in some application, the application may seek out fonts available on your system.

  30. Tim said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    I suspect the font issue is that he copy-pasted into a word processor to enlarge it up to be written. At least on my computer, a Song typeface is the default.

  31. RonNYC said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    Perhaps (I'm not a linguist), no more corruption is short for "let there be no more corruption" which could, following the King James in Chinese, be translated into:

    要 沒有更多的腐敗

    ??

    Ron

  32. Kaiwen said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

    No more ~ –> "down with ~" ?

    and thus ”打到~“

  33. Otto Kerner said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    I've often wondered about Chinese slogan language. I've heard some 文化大革命 slogans, but I don't quite know the rules. How should I sloganize "Free Tibet!"?

  34. Joseph said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    When I was learning chinese, I'd often copy/paste chinese text from websites and into Microsoft Word, and then enlarge the text to size 100 or so. This would give me enough visual information without having to work very hard at guessing at the balance/weight of strokes. Having done so just now, I can at least confirm that my computer is displaying Google's "Chinese (Traditional)" output as 'serifed' (MS Mincho). Although, if this were the case for the photo, it wouldn't explain why the sign is missing certain strokes…

  35. simon elegant said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    i think 达到 whatever! would be the closest and most succinct. there's plenty of such usage in those white on red banners you see everywhere that exhort people to do the right thing. in a bank I saw 击毁伪造罪!or maybe 砸毁….(happy to be corrected if my memory is false here)

    much of this terminology must be left over from the cultural revolution.

  36. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    [...] The Millions compared OWS to Bartleby the scrivener. At Language Log, Victor Mair pointed out an OWS Chinese protest sign that doesn’t quite translate, while Mark Liberman discussed a left-wing “altar [...]

  37. Wentao said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    I would say 停止腐败 "Stop corruption" or 对腐败说不 "Say no to corruption". 不要再贪了 "Don't corrupt anymore" suggested by yybb is also a good choice.

    The font is simple and regular 宋体, with the serif a bit exaggerated. Possibly the sign maker copied and pasted the characters from google translate into some word processing software and enlarged and made it bold? Anyway the effort is really impressive.

    @Otto Kerner: "Free Tibet!" would be 解放西藏 or 自由西藏 depending on whether "free" here is a verb or an adjective.

  38. Paul said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 12:33 am

    Font fallback is browser specific. Firefox will render traditional Chinese in a serifed font by default. So now we know something more about this chap, specifically his online preferences.

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