Wet turban needless wash

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James Fallows took this picture on a China Air flight from Chengdu to Beijing, and posted about it on his Olympics blog at The Atlantic (click on the image for a larger version).

Fallows' comment:

I don't think "funny" translations are all that funny, my theory being, I am allowed to make fun of someone's translation of Chinese into English only when I'm ready to have a Chinese person make fun of my translation of English into Chinese. And I will never be ready to do that.

On the other hand: If I were going to translate something into Chinese, for a wide audience of Chinese people to read, I might possibly consider having a native Chinese speaker take a look at it before I gave the final OK. Which is why I continue to marvel at specimens like this: the always-welcome "moist towelette" from yesterday's Air China flight from Chengdu to Beijing …

The Hanzi characters, with the English glosses from CEDict, are:

免 mian3 exempt/remove/avoid/excuse
洗 xi3 wash/bathe
湿 shi1 moist/wet
巾 jin1 towel/kerchief/turban

Even without access to someone who knows English, a few minutes with a decent bilingual dictionary should be enough to make it clear that "turban" is not the right translation in this case for 巾. Figuring out what to do with 免洗 is slightly trickier, since English seems to lack the concept that moist towelettes are a convenient way to avoid washing, as opposed to a convenient way to wash. But a quick web search should convince anyone that "needless wash" is not the answer here.

Of course, what almost certainly happened was that someone just fed 免洗湿巾 into a bad MT system, and put the result into production without checking, as Victor Mair explained last year ("The etiology and elaboration of a flagrant mistranslation", 12/9/2007). (And before we get too snooty about the poor quality of Kingsoft, note that Google Translate now renders 免洗湿巾 as "Disposable Shijin", and 湿巾 as "Shi Jin", though 湿 comes out as "wetlands" and 巾 as "towel".)

I haven't been able to find any details about the "Min Kang" company/brand, but I think it's fair to assume that they could afford a few bucks to get the English version of their packaging checked by someone who knows the language. But they didn't bother, which is curiously typical of the attitude of Chinese companies towards this sort of thing.

A slightly different version of this package from the same company ("Hygiene wet turban needless wash") was posted on Flickr last year:

And there are quite a few other web references to this particular bit of packaging as well.

[Fun fact: there's a "Moist Towelette Online Museum", with a small number of multilingual examples, including one in Gaelic. Apologies to susceptible readers.]

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21 Comments »

  1. Claire said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:29 am

    I am allowed to make fun of someone's translation of Chinese into English only when I'm ready to have a Chinese person make fun of my translation of English into Chinese. And I will never be ready to do that.

    Er, why couldn't he deal with someone making harmless fun of a well-intentioned and amusing error on his part?

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Claire: why couldn't he deal with someone making harmless fun of a well-intentioned and amusing error on his part?

    I wondered that myself. I think what he meant, though, was that his Chinese will never be good enough to avoid errors that may seem foolish to native speakers.

    Fallows has lived in China for a certain amount of time, and seems to know a fair amount of Chinese.

  3. Rachael said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    Yes, I thought he meant he'll never be able to translate English into Chinese to any standard, with or without amusing errors. But it was a bit ambiguous.

  4. mollymooly said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    The slogan "Have a good journey!" is perfectly idiomatic*; the marketing department uses a better translator than the production department.

    (*although since I know no Chinese, I can't be sure it translates the adjacent characters properly).

  5. Mark P said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    It's funny in a Jay-Leno/ignorance-is-funny/I'm-monolingual-and-proud-of-it sort of way. But it doesn't take much experience for a poor speaker of a foreign language to learn a little humility. I was once sent a greeting from a Cuban. I could not come close to translating it even with a Spanish-English dictionary. All I could tell was that my translations could not possibly be right. That was a sufficient hint for me to ask someone who actually knew something.

  6. Claire said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    It is possible to make mean-spirited fun of people's language errors, Mark, and it's also possible to recognize the delightful absurdity in mistranslation while not mocking the person responsible for the mistake. Certainly a fine line, though.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    Mark P: It's funny in a Jay-Leno/ignorance-is-funny/I'm-monolingual-and-proud-of-it sort of way.

    But James Fallows has lived in China for extended periods of time, and put quite a bit of effort into learning Chinese. And our most prolific source of examples of this kind is Victor Mair, who is hardly "monolingual-and-proud-of-it".

  8. Mark P said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    Fallows seems not to find it funny. I think it's possible to find it notable and amusing for its absurdity, as Claire says, but not to find it "funny" in the sense I was talking about. The "funny" I was talking about is the kind that the mocker can all too easily find turned on himself.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    Mark P: The "funny" I was talking about is the kind that the mocker can all too easily find turned on himself.

    For example?

  10. Mark P said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    I'm not sure whether you're asking me to cite something from this blog as an example, or something in general. I did not mean to imply that there is an example here of that sort of funniness, and I presumed that you did not write your comments in that tone either. If you mean something in general, I can probably come up with that, but if you mean something here, I'm at a loss.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    Mark P: I'm not sure whether you're asking me to cite something from this blog as an example, or something in general.

    Well, specifically, when you wrote in your original comment "It's funny in a Jay-Leno/ignorance-is-funny/I'm-monolingual-and-proud-of-it sort of way", what was the referent of (the first) "it"?

  12. Mark P said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    My original comment referred to the English translation on the China Air moist towelette package. I was essentially echoing what I took to be Fallows' attitude. You know, "judge not that ye be not judged …" I think what mockery there is in Fallows piece is pretty mild. The risk is, of course, far greater for someone like me than for someone like Fallows. I mentioned Jay Leno because that package is exactly the sort of thing he often mocks on his show.

  13. MJ said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

    I'm somewhat confused by the exchange between the two Marks. On the one hand, there's the worry that an entirely earnest foreigner will make an understandable translation error and unreflective individuals, who don't see that but for chance and circumstance they would be in the same situation, deride the unlucky foreigner. We should definitely not be like these hypothetical unreflective individuals.

    But on the other hand, the present case is a completely different beast. As Mark L. points out, this is a company, which can presumably pay the presumably modest price to have a native English speaker (or even a non-machine with a dictionary) check the translation. Maybe one simply never hears about it, but it's hard to believe that American companies (or Swedish ones, or whatever) export equally egregious translations to their trading partners. Hence the ostensible (and ostended) linguistic interest in the story: something is truly strange about Chinese attitudes toward translation. And we're not making the mistake of the unreflective individuals of the earlier paragraph, because we are reflecting, and upon reflection, correct translation is far more important than the Chinese seem to give it credit for (cf. the actual and potential vicissitudes of a "nigger-black" couch).

  14. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

    If an individual makes a mistake trying to speak a foreign language, it's mean-spirited to laugh at him. But if a company spends money to put out bizarre translations of its advertising slogans, surely that's fair game.

    And I don't think it's provincial of me to be amused at something like "Wet turban needless wash" or "Spread to fuck the fruit." Bad translations are funny, period. I'd be just as amused to hear what kind of howlers Americans come up with in Chinese.

  15. suss man said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:24 am

    With four German grandparents I speak German that has always been of a high standard for household use but the first time I actually went to germany and talked about things other than food and family I got into all sorts of trouble. For example, I went into a department store and asked them for a sheep instead of a scarf. They eventually worked out my mistake and offered me a "Schal" but i insisted on a "Schaf" for winter. Many, many times. My flawless accent only made things much, much worse as they couldn't believe I was so ignorant in matters of syntax, so they assumed I was insane. Similarly, I became flustered when abused by a ticket inspector and insisted I was 62 rather than 26 years old, again in a fine Prussian accent that my grandfather would have been proud of. That time a whole tramload of people were watching.

  16. Mark P said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    I have no problem with mocking companies; mock away. I, too, would laugh at incompetent translations by English speakers, especially if those doing the translations had been laughing at Chinese translations earlier.

  17. TootsNYC said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    You can think something is hilariously funny without actually MOCKING it.
    And without condemning it.

    At least, my family can, bcs my brothers and sister do it to me all the time. And they are right–my putting an empty fork into my mouth without noticing the cake fell off? That's funny.

    Sure, it's not as much fun to be laughed at in that way as it is to be praised for my cleverness, but it's still funny. *I* laughed so hard I couldn't stop. And I'm a grownup; I can live with the little sting of embarrassment that comes naturally when we've done something silly or stupid.

    But my brother wasn't *mocking* me.

  18. BlueBottle said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 6:03 am

    MJ said: "As Mark L. points out, this is a company, which can presumably pay the presumably modest price to have a native English speaker (or even a non-machine with a dictionary) check the translation. Maybe one simply never hears about it, but it's hard to believe that American companies (or Swedish ones, or whatever) export equally egregious translations to their trading partners. Hence the ostensible (and ostended) linguistic interest in the story: something is truly strange about Chinese attitudes toward translation."

    As a typesetter/artworker who's produced labels for a variety of products in my time, I'm more inclined to see this as the result of outsourcing to the lowest bidder rather than any peculiarly Chinese attitude towards translation.

    We're talking about a disposable item that was (I assume) given away free. The manufacturer's margin would have been minimal, and reliable translation services are rarer and more expensive than artworkers.

  19. Maxwell said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:44 am

    Hi there,

    I work for a large UK translations company.

    There are a few points to make regarding automated translation systems such as those found online.

    Software can be used for translation projects, but I would advise against it if what you're translating is intended ultimately for publication.

    There are often so many cultural nuances to take into consideration that cutting corners by using translation software can render your message practically impossible to understand for your target audience.

    And beyond popular European languages like Spanish (that being 2nd only to English and 4th overall in the world), you run the risk of dramatic misinterpretation.

    Often the only way to go is to utilise the services of a professional translator.

    Anyway, great blog though; keep it up.

    Good to have these things discussed so that people get the facts rather than being left to speculate and not get the results that they want.

  20. Alex said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    TootsNYC has a point and Maxwell's post is the cherry on top.

  21. B.Ma said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    English speakers usually believe that Pinyin is to be pronounced using the rules of English spelling. In foreign language classes you may often find people translating an English sentence word for word without realizing that their native language allows certain quirks like putting prepositions at the end of sentences, or skipping "that"s, with amusing results. Likewise, if you venture further into China you will encounter people who regard Pinyin as a way of representing the sounds of their language, which it is, rather than a way to help foreigners read or learn Chinese characters. So it shouldn't be surprising that they have no concept of English being a totally different language with different word orders and idiomatic expressions.

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