James Fallows has a nice post today on the puzzling proliferation of bizarre mistranslations in English versions of Chinese signs, menus and so on ("Uncle! Or let's make that, 叔叔!", 8/5/2008). He illustrates the post with the "Translate server error" sign that he found in a LL post ("Honest but unhelpful", 7/1/2008), due originally (as far as I know) to Samuel Osouf.
Fallows starts this way: "In response to widespread popular demand, I will admit: screwed-up translations of Chinese into English can be very funny!"
He agrees that some of the people laughing should probably think twice about their reactions:
When you're a native speaker of what has become the dominant international language, there's something undeniably Colonel Blimp-ish in making fun of the locals for their flawed command of your own mother tongue. Especially when this is happening in their own country, and all the more so when the people doing the chuckling can't do as well in Chinese as the Chinese are trying to do in English.
But beyond the humor, culpable or otherwise, the most important and interesting point is the systematic carelessness in official and formal contexts:
… it truly is bizarre that so many organizations in China are willing to chisel English translations into stone, paint them on signs, print them on business cards, and expose them permanently to the world without making any effort to check whether they are right. […]
Why does this happen? I wish I knew. In micro terms, it must come from rote reliance on dictionaries or translation software. For instance, the title of this post: the dictionary will tell us that 叔叔, shu shu, means an uncle. But of course it does not mean what "Uncle!" means in U.S. slang — as any Chinese speaker would point out if you asked him to check out the title. (For those who don't know, "Uncle!" means, "I give up! You win!") In the larger sense, why so many people would so carelessly waste money and — the real mystery, considering Chinese sensitivities — so brazenly expose themselves to ridicule is puzzle. Learning a language means being willing to make mistakes. That's different from presenting formal, error-filled material for outsiders to read.
And he quotes a letter from Gene Richards, "an American now based in Chengdu", who thinks that English-speakers shouldn't accept the bad translations as good enough, and that ridicule is an appropriate (because eventually useful) response:
I can't agree with your acceptance of the Chinglish that is so common here. I've been here for three years this trip, teaching at a private college in the suburbs of Chengdu, Sichuan (I've been coming to China since 1986). It's funny and deserves to be laughed at and criticized and the Chinese should be taken to task for the sheer volume of it, not to mention their unrepentant use of it. […]
But, what amazes me is that large public institutions and corporations, like your example of the wet wipes, don't bother to ask a foreigner to simply review their publications or postings or advertisements. It would take only a few minutes to sort out the inadequacy of the translation – almost always Chinglish – that is, the direct word for word translation from Chinese to English, along with some poor choice of vocabulary items.
Is it a matter of expense? I think not as their are many foreigners that would be happy to oblige for a pittance, both here in Sichuan and I'm sure in the larger, cosmopolitan centers around China.
Could it be too hard to find a foreigner? Impossible as all the Foreign Affairs Offices in all the large cities know where ALL the foreigners are and whether they're teaching English or doing business here.
So, what is it? That's what we should be talking about. Our criticism should be swift and embarrassing, otherwise it will continue ad infinitum.
In that spirit, here are some links to a sample of earlier LL posts on mistranslations of Chinese to English in formal contexts:
"Wet turban needless wash", 8/4/2008
"The Sichuan's hair blood is prosperous", 7/31/2008
"Bacteria, arsenic and other potentially hazardous delectables", 7/22/2008
"Braised enterovirus, anyone?", 7/16/2008
"Honest but unhelpful", 7/1/2008
"Forbidden to die", 6/9/2008
"Just the Queen invites irrigation", 4/8/2008
"Egg, penis, whatever", 2/14/2008
"A is for Apple…", 2/9/2008
"The etiology and elaboration of a flagrant mistranslation", 12/9/2007
"The finance is enclosedchief: fire exting wisher box", 10/3/2007
"For glue the sex rubber mat", 8/31/2007
"It's a time sex thing, baby", 8/8/2007
"Research and empoldering", 4/20/2007
"Racist park", 4/18/2007
"Needed: good editor for Chinese-English dictionaries", 4/13/2007
"Is it down cigar head can pull out necessary?", 1/10/2007
"And next, facial poo", 10/25/2006
"The shrimp did what to the cabbage?", 9/11/2006
"Further thoughts on the riddle of GAN", 6/30/2006
"GAN: whodunnit, and how, and why?", 5/31/2006
"A less grand Chinglish", 5/30/2006
"Regale in basilica", 5/18/2006
"A grander Chinglish", 5/15/2006
"Engrish explained", 3/11/2006
There are some similar things in the careless translation of other languages, and in other slavish interpretations of computer output, but they seem to be less frequent:
The main context for funny English-to-Chinese mistakes, these days, seems to be the tattoos catalogued at Hanzi Smatter, e.g. the one discussed here: "Semen, green rice and the rate of internet decay", 12/4/2004, or of course the famous case of 狂 瀉. And the counterpart to the recommended campaign to reduce formal Chinglish by ridicule is Hanzi Smatter's campaign against incoherent or hilariously-mistaken tattoos, especially on celebrities.
This still leaves open the question of why so little effort is made to avoid or correct bad English translations of Chinese in formal and official contexts. Against Fallows' suggestion that it's excessive deference to the authority of dictionaries and translation software, Richards offers another possibility:
Could it be the super-nationalism that's rampant now? They just can't bring themselves to admit that their overall level of English is so bad that they need to ask a foreigner to help out?
Whatever the answer, it's not the lack of official willingness to acknowledge the existence of a problem, at least if we can believe reports over the years like this one: "Going crackers over Chinglish", Sidney Morning Herald, 12/18/2002:
Beijing has launched a campaign to wipe out "Chinglish", a version of English that results in weird and largely incomprehensible phrases.
The "language mandarins" of Beijing have decided that Chinglish is a blight on China's modernising pretensions and must be obliterated before the city hosts the Olympic Games in 2008.
And before we conclude that all this tells us something special about Chinese culture, let's recall what Geoff Pullum wrote in 2005 about a real estate brochure hilariously mistranslated from Spanish to English:
When one has finished giggling …, one finds oneself wondering: who on earth could approve English this bafflingly dreadful for publication in a full-color brochure that must have cost thousands of euros, while knowing so little English that they could not see they were signing off on impenetrable gibberish? Why was no one who knew English from long acquaintance brought in to cast an eye over it? […]
Could it be pride, an unwillingness to admit to not being adequately fluent in the nascent global language of commerce and the most frequently encountered language spoken by visitors to Spain?
Another possibility is a naive belief that all languages are basically just a funny output mechanism for Spanish (or Chinese, or English), using a cipher that you can look up in a codebook called a bilingual dictionary — or, for convenience, leave to the tender mercies of a computer.
Anyhow, my current working hypothesis is that the Chinese are just like the Spanish, only farther away.