Pinyin with Chinese characters

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Matt Keefe came across this sign on a San Francisco streetcar in April:

Unlike the pinyin on this umbrella bagging machine, the pinyin on this sign not only is accompanied with Chinese characters, it also comes with tones marked and with proper spacing:

Zhège zuòwèi yǐ bèi jìnyòng chū yú ānquán yuányīn. Qǐng bùyào zuò zài zhèlǐ.
("This seat has been disabled for safety reasons. Please do not sit here.")
N.B.:  this is identical with the Chinese provided by Google Translate.

A more idiomatic Chinese translation would be the following:

Chū yú ānquán yuányīn, zhège zuòwèi yǐ bèi jìnyòng. Qǐng bùyào zuò zài zhèlǐ.
("Due to safety reasons, this seat has been disabled. Please do not sit here.")
N.B.:  this is identical with the Chinese provided by Bing Translator.

Baidu Fanyi returns:

Yīn ānquán yuányīn, zhège zuòwèi yǐ bèi jìnyòng. Qǐng bùyào zuò zài zhèlǐ.
("Because of safety reasons, this seat has been disabled. Please don't sit here.")

The inclusion of both pinyin and characters together prompted a number of good questions from Matt:

Is it common to feature both? What is the perceived benefit of including the pinyin as well? Is this more common outside of China where, as in places like San Francisco, an ex-pat community with many speakers who cannot read or write hanzi might exist?

I'm sure that Matt will be happy to receive replies to his questions from those who read this post, but I'd also like to mention that some of these issues have been discussed in the following post and the comments thereto: "Pinyin in practice" (10/13/11).  There was also a vigorous debate on them here: "PINYIN ALONE" (10/13/11).

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, and Wei Shao]


  1. norman said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 10:51 am

    And the crazy thing is that all the announcements on the buses in SF (I was just there last week!) are in English, then Cantonese, then Spanish!

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    As a child I was taught that a prepositional phrase headed with "due to" could not / should not be (what we nowadays call) an adjunct to a verb: it should be "owing to" or "because of". While I no longer accept the validity of that particular piece of prescriptive teaching, such is the power of early teaching that, 60 years on, I still feel much more comfortable with "This seat has been disabled for safety reasons" than with "Due to safety reasons, this seat has been disabled."

  3. Russell said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 11:47 am

    There is a fair amount of English/Chinese multilingual signage in San Francisco, and some of my friends definitely noted the oddity of this sign when it appeared around a year ago. Not only does it feature pinyin, but it uses simplified characters, both of which seem unlikely to be useful to the majority of Chinese-readers in San Francisco. The fact that the text matches what Google Translate gives you might suggest a reason.

  4. John said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 11:52 am

    To me it's quite remarkable that the sign will appear in San Francisco, where most Chinese signage is in traditional characters. I always assumed that the Chinese signs are meant to serve a Chinese-American community in which most people left China before or during the Communist revolution, and would thus have little familiarity with simplified characters (or pinyin, for that matter).

    Just another illustration of the increasing PRC-fication of overseas Chinese communities, I suppose.

  5. Abby said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    Isn't the problem with pinyin that it varies by dialect whereas Chinese characters would be meaningful to those literate in Chinese characters regardless of dialect? I'm not good with written Chinese – even pinyin – but if I had to guess I'd say this was probably Mandarin. I wonder how many Chinese ex-pats who can't read Chinese characters are Mandarin speakers vs other dialects?

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

    I am curious about how they came up with desactivado and not inhabilitado for 'disabled'.

  7. gribley said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    With apologies for ignoring the meta-linguistic content here, I am still puzzled by the actual content: Why they hell would they "disable" a seat (a seat consisting of a single molded plastic piece, I believe) and yet leave it in place? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    Other alternative Chinese translations of the English suggested by colleagues:

    This sign indeed sounds awkward because it's a direct translation from English. In Chinese, the reason should be placed before the result. Therefore, I would say 出于安全原因,这个座位已被禁用 instead.

    I suspect this is a direct translation of the English. In normal colloquial Chinese, I would simply say "这个座位不安全。请不要坐在这里。“

    The Chinese seems very Google-translation-ish, probably for two reasons: 1) The Chinese phrases are in the same order as the English ones, which doesn't sound right. 2) The Chinese read like a casual/oral tone, which is not so appropriate to use in this sign. A better way might be:

  9. KWillets said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    @gribley Muni decided suddenly that the frontmost forward-facing seat is a hazard because people might fall forward out of it. It's a folding seat for wheelchairs, so it's left in the folded position. People often perch on the folded seat top.

    No one really knows why they did this after decades of the same seating configuration, and the signage perhaps reflects that decision process.

  10. K. Chang said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    @gribley — those seats are "folding" seats on Muni vehicles that they can fold up for wheelchair / mobility scooter transport. Apparently they are some sort of safety hazard and they don't want people sitting in them any more.


    Regarding the pinyin… Seems they just copied everything Google translate rendered.

  11. K Chang said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    @Abby — given this is simplified Chinese, it's definitely putonghua Mandarin.

  12. Charles Antaki said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    @gribley – I agree – it sounds odd (to British English ears at least) to call a seat "disabled" if it's been put out of commission. Here it would be "not in use", which removes the implied agency from the seat and restores it to the (frustrated) sitter.

  13. Nuno said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    I agree with K. Chang. It probably went something like this:

    1. There's a lot of chinese folks around here. We should add a Chinese translation too.

    2. Google translate.

    3. Traditional Chinese? Simplified Chinese?
    Better take the simplified. That's probably how they talk these days./ Make sure it's easy to understand.

    4. It gives me letters AND symbols!? Better copy it all.

  14. jamie said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    "What is the perceived benefit of including the pinyin as well?"

    Wouldn't a better question be "What is the perceived benefit of including characters as well?"

  15. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    Plural in Spanish?

  16. RW said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    Also strange that the Spanish says "these seats" if there's only one of them.

  17. un malpaso said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:39 am

    But indeed, even in the phrase "Due to safety reasons" , due to is not an adjunct to a verb. It's a preposition.

  18. cs said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    Reading the link in K. Chang's comment, it says that the decal was provided by the bus maker – this might explain why it is not consistent with the rest of the bilingual signage in the city, it might even help explain why it is a less than professional quality translation.

  19. BZ said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    @Charles Antaki,
    To me (US) a seat that is "not in use" is available to sit on as opposed to "in use" as in someone is sitting there. Granted this sounds kind of odd (a bathroom is more likely to be in use than a seat), but that is the only meaning I can parse out of that phrase. While a disabled seat sounds odd, at least it makes sense when you are there and see that it is unusable. I'd say something like "rendered unusable", but that sounds kind of stuffy. "permanently folded" maybe?

  20. Matt Keefe said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 5:57 am

    @Charles Antaki

    "…it sounds odd (to British English ears at least) to call a seat "disabled" if it's been put out of commission. Here it would be "not in use", which removes the implied agency from the seat and restores it to the (frustrated) sitter."

    There's no implied agency in the original phrase – indeed, quite the opposite. "This seat has been disabled" is a passive construction, inherently removing agency from the seat. That part of the sign is perfectly sensible in context – it was a folding, or drop-down, seat, with moving parts which had been clamped 'shut' or 'up. It had indeed been disabled. I appreciate that's not apparent from the photo; in context it was a perfectly sensible wording (in the English, at least). Regardless, even if the seat were static, and 'disabled' were rendered an odd choice of vocabulary, any oddness has nothing to do with agency on the part of the seat, which the surrounding grammatical construction clearly rules out: "This seat has been disabled [by our engineers, etc.]."

    Thanks for the responses on the question of the use of pinyin, folks.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 3:05 am

    Just a nitpick. This is on the trolley buses, not the streetcars.

  22. Anna Johnson said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    Providence always had Hmong and European Portuguese as its non-English languages; my first exposure to romanised Hmong as a yoot (youth) blew my mind.

  23. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 7:35 am

    Coby, desactivado is quite common when you're talking about enabling or disabling settings. More interesting to me in the Spanish one is the fact that it changes the seats to plural where in English there's just one seat, and the redundant politeness (you don't need to use por favor when using formal commands, although the most common signage in the Spanish speaking world just uses infinitives "no fumar" instead of "no fumen")

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