Campaign for promoting falls awareness

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The Health Promotion Board (Bǎojiàn cùjìn jú 保健促进局) of Singapore has launched a campaign to promote awareness of falling.  Here's the poster they circulated in conjunction with the launch:


The poster quickly began to circulate on the internet, with people criticizing the Chinese translation as saying the opposite of what was intended.  (Note that in Singapore the main language of government and the work place is English, so things have to be translated from it into the other three official languages — Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, with Malay still held to be the "national language".)

Here's what the poster says:

tuīguǎng diédǎo yìshí yùndòng 推广跌倒意识运动
("campaign / movement for promoting awareness of falling")

Here's an example of what the critics think the translation should have been:

fáng diē yìshí yùndòng 防跌意识运动
("campaign / movement for awareness of preventing falling")

I would like to initiate a debate or survey among Language Log readers concerning which of the versions is inferior and which is superior.

Incidentally, in America the equivalent event, sponsored by the National Council on Aging, is called the Falls Prevention Awareness Day.

The critics of the tuīguǎng diédǎo yìshí yùndòng 推广跌倒意识运动 ("campaign / movement for promoting awareness of falling") called it a "wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译".  It's apparent from the context that wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译 must mean something like a "botched translation".  As a tea aficionado, I am intrigued by how wūlóng 乌龙 (lit., "black dragon") came to be used in the sense of "blunder", since by far the most common application of the expression is in reference to Oolong tea.

The wūlóng 乌龙 ("blunder") of wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译 ("botched translation") comes from the expression "bǎi wūlóng 摆乌龙" ("commit a blunder").

Now, in an effort to understand how wūlóng 乌龙 ("black dragon"), as in Oolong tea, came to mean a "blunder", I'm going to switch to traditional characters, since most references (e.g., this one and this one) attempt to explain this usage as being derived from Cantonese wu1lung4*2 kau4 烏龍球 ("own goal"), a boner in football where one causes the ball to go into the goal of one's own team.  Another Cantonese term beside that for "botched translation" that supposedly derives from the same football usage is wu1lung4*2 zi2 烏龍指 ("fat finger glitch" [in causing massive stock price fluctuations]).

Although this appears to be the most widely accepted explanation of the derivation of wūlóng 乌龙 in the sense of "bungle; botch; blunder", I'm rather dubious that it is the true origin of the expression.  My main reason for feeling doubt about this supposed derivation is that wu1lung4*2 doesn't sound a lot like "own", though I wouldn't rule out entirely that some Cantonese speaker(s) thought it did.

Victor Seow, who hails from Singapore, has another reason to harbor reservation over the "own goal" explanation:

I am a little suspicious since "own goal" as a term to mean scoring on one's own side (in a ball game) does not seem to be in use in the 19th century (based on a quick search through Google Books).

As so often is the case when there's a common expression for which a convincing derivation is lacking, Janet Williams (Geok Hoon 张玉云) points out that bǎi wūlóng 摆乌龙 ("commit a blunder") is regional / topolectal, so most people who use the expression simply have no clue what it originally meant.  Thus Janet's father, who spoke Hokkien, would shout enthusiastically wūlóng qiú 烏龍球! ("flub!") wūlóng qiú 烏龍球! ("flub!") while watching football, without worrying how "black dragon" came to have that meaning.

When someone bungles a translation from Chinese to English, it is customary nowadays to refer to the result as "Chinglish", a term with which we are quite familiar at Language Log.  Going the other direction, if someone messes up an English to Chinese translation, people will laugh at them as having made a wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译 ("botched translation").  However, since none of the major online translation services (Google, Bing, Baidu, and iciba) render wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译 correctly as "botched translation", rendering it instead as "Oolong translation" or some variant thereof, I am inclined to believe that that this usage, wu1lung4*2 faan1jik6 烏龍翻譯 ("botched translation"), is a southern expression that has not yet been fully taken up into Mandarin.

A classic instance of such a wūlóng fānyì 乌龙翻译 ("botched translation") in Singapore, which supposedly has quite a history of such bungled translations, is Xiōngyálì guǐjié 匈牙利鬼节 ("Hungary Ghost Festival") for "Hungry Ghost Festival".  This occurred in a 2002 guidebook put out by the Singapore Tourism Office.

For an entertaining Cantonese sitcom episode on wu1lung4*2 faan1jik6 烏龍翻譯 ("botched translation"), watch this YouTube video.

[Thanks to Yilise]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 11:22 am

    The OED (online edition) dates "own goal" to 1922, FWIW. (And the figurative meaning, "act that unintentionally harms one's own interests," is only from 1975.)

  2. Rodger C said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    I hope "Oolong translation" catches on.

  3. Stephen Hart said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    There's at least one calendar of cancer awareness weeks, etc. Only two have "prevention" in the title. One has a negative: World No Tobacco Day (May 31).

  4. Michael said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 2:50 pm

    My own reaction (perhaps culturally programmed, due to the color of the poster), was to read it as the "Fall awareness campaign," which could be read as a campaign to increase awareness of Autumn, but my brain interpreted it as an "awareness campaign" that happens to occur during the Fall.

  5. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    I'm going to switch to traditional characters, since most references … attempt to explain this usage as being derived from Cantonese

    Professor Mair, I find it fascinating that you, if I’m understanding you correctly, associate Cantonese with traditional characters. Perhaps you have more insight as to, owing to HK influence, how much traditional is used to write Cantonese in 兩廣, but I know writing 廣州話 in simplified is by no means unknown.

    (While there are Cantonese-specific Unicode characters for which afaik there are only fonts that render them in traditional, that doesn’t seem immediately germane.)

  6. Jason said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    Cantonese is written in simplified characters; however, my Guangzhou friends tell me that they cannot use the unique Cantonese characters that Cantonese writers in Hong Kong use.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 4:28 pm

    When I read Falls Awareness Campaign, I immediately thought this was a piece about poor translation from Chinese into English! Frankly, I've never heard of Falls Awareness or Falls Prevention, but I guess I'm getting into that age group where I need to pay more attention.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    Incidentally, I note that 防跌 gets quite a lot of hits on Google, but they all seem to be from HK or Taiwan web sites.

  9. Vivian said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    I prefer 防跌意识运动.

    To me 推广跌倒意识 sounds like encouraging people to fall voluntarily (c.f. 推广维权意识= encouraging people to protect their rights).
    I guess in English, 'xx awareness' includes two layers of meaning: being aware of xx, and being aware that something should be done about xx. For example, 'human rights awareness' could encompass knowledge of what human rights are and the idea that human rights are inviolable. But the phrase '推广xx意识' in Chinese evokes almost exclusively the second layer of meaning. So environmental awareness in Chinese would be 环保意识 (awareness of protecting the environment). For cases like 'awareness of xx disease' or things like 'ADHD awareness month' where more emphases are one the first layer of meaning, their counterparts in Chinese communities would be something like 'xxx疾病宣传' ,'多动症宣传月'.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 5:24 am

    A Google search of 预防跌倒意识 yields some results, mostly, it seems, from China and Singapore. It seems possible that this is the favoured version in China.

  11. Francis Boyle said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    I remember seeing a banner across a road near where I live announcing "Homeopathy Awareness Month" and thinking "yes, I would like more people to be aware that homeopathy is bullshit". I don't think that was much of a stretch.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    @Francis Boyle

    What you wrote made me roar with laughter.

  13. Jichang Lulu said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    Humorous translations into Chinese are also called 神翻译 – 'divine' or inspired translations. Googling for that yields e.g. this list, which includes several items I think I've seen on Language Log.

  14. Francis Boyle said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    @Victor Mair

    Thank you, I'll be here all week.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    @Jichang Lulu

    That's a great collection of Chinglishisms. We've covered over half of them on Language Log.

  16. dana said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    What about the Walk for Hunger, Walk for Cancer, etc.? No translation involved, but has always bothered me.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 7:03 am

    From Abraham Chan:

    Frankly I don’t know the answer, but after doing a bit of research myself, it appears that the most popular theory is that 烏龍 (literally “black dragon”) is often used as a name for dogs, but it was really a mistake for 烏尨 (“black dog”), as the two characters lóng 龍 and máng 尨 are often mixed up, hence the use of 烏龍 to refer to something being messed up. But I don’t think this theory adds up.

    I tend to believe that 烏龍 in Cantonese is actually a borrowing of 伍弄 (“humbug/hoodwink”) from Mandarin. As to 擺烏龍, it is probably a fusion of 擺弄 (“tease/play trick) and 伍弄. This is just my own preliminary thought, and more research is needed to support it.

  18. beni said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    i think oolong sounds rather close to wrong.

  19. Hwa SH said,

    July 19, 2016 @ 2:07 am

    I have no clue about what's going on with the Chinese, but "falls awareness/prevention" as opposed to "fall awareness/prevention" sounds wrong to me, even though in this case apparently some American organisation also uses "falls". I used to live in Singapore and I didn't like how they would write things like " women problems " in an ad for a gynaecologist (as opposed to "woman problems" or alternatively "women'S problems")
    For a clearer example, we say " child abuse "; nobody, not even persons with very poor English, says " children abuse ".

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