Unattended luggage

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On her way back from Cornwall in April, Janet (Geok Hoon) Williams saw this sign, put up by Great Western Railway, at the train station:

The Chinese reads:

zài ānquánxìng fāngmiàn de lìyì qǐng bùyào líkāi nǐ de xínglǐ wú rén kānguǎn
在安全性方面的利益 請不要離開你的行李無人看管
"For the benefit of the aspect of security, don't depart from your luggage with no one to look after it."

Although it is fairly easy to get the basic gist of the Chinese sentence, it sounds awkward.

It's interesting that all six of the foreign languages on the sign seem to be working from this English sentence which is not on the sign:  "In the interest of security, please do not leave your luggage unattended".

I don't know about the other languages on the sign, but it seems difficult to me to express "unattended" in Chinese.  One could say, in a rather forced, unidiomatic manner, wèi jīng zhàokàn 未經照看 ("not having been taken care of"), but I think that Chinese would prefer to state the matter positively as zhàokàn hǎo 照看好 ("well taken care of"), or some such.

In English, "unattended" is an adjective, but the Chinese phrase "wú rén kānguǎn 無人看管" ("no one / nobody looking after [it]") has the subject expressed.  If you want to turn this phrase into an adjective, you have to add the magical marker "de 的" at the end — "which has no one looking after it" — and then you can modify "luggage" with it, but that would still sound unnatural.

Here are three alternative Chinese translations of the standard, but unwritten, English announcement:

chū yú ānquán kǎolǜ, qǐng bùyào ràng nǐ de xínglǐ wú rén kānguǎn
("…please don't let your luggage [be in a condition of having] no one to look after it")

chū yú ānquán kǎolǜ, qǐng bùyào líkāi nín de xínglǐ
("…please don't go away from your luggage")

chū yú ānquán kǎolǜ, qǐng kānguǎn hǎo nín de xínglǐ
("…please watch over your luggage well")

[Thanks to Fanyi Cheng and Yixue Yang]


  1. Avinor said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    The German word order is off as well.

  2. Steve Politzer-Ahles said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    I always found it funny that these signs (on lots of train stations throughout England) have a PRC flag next to traditional characters.

  3. F. said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    The Portuguese was actually right although does not conincide with the ENG wording, just a little bit.

    And agree with Steve Politzer-Ahles.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    Re the use of a flag as code for a language, I find the convention of using a Union Jack on non-English websites to mean, more or less, "click here for an English-language version of this site" somewhat peculiar, not least because only a minority of the world's Anglophones are citizens or residents of the UK. I don't take it as a reliable signal that BrEng rather than AmEng conventions will be consistently followed when the two differ.

    Maybe some grumpy Austrian nationalists could campaign against the use of the BRD flag as a generic symbol of the German language? Are the people behind the sign (not sure if British Transport Police or the specific railroad is responsible for the details) really pro-Anschluss?

  5. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

    My Chinese translation is:
    Unattended luggage
    Please keep your luggage with you at all time.
    If you see any unattended luggage, please contact a member of staff or British Transport Police officer.

  6. Richard said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

    Yeah! What right do the English and the Germans have to call those languages their own!

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

    Interestingly enough, the convention seems generally to be to use a UK flag rather than an English flag, even though in a European context (because of soccer), at least, the red-cross-on-white-field flag of England-as-such ought to have comparable "brand recognition" and semiotic clarity.

    I hadn't looked before, but there are plenty of people out there peeving more stridently than I would about the basic practice, including a blog devoted solely to such peeves: http://flagsarenotlanguages.com/blog/.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 11:35 pm


    Is 任何 a translation of ""any"?

  9. champacs said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 12:10 am

    The French sounds awkward as well. "S'il vous plait" is a very literal translation of "please"; in this context French would use "veuillez" ex: "Dans l'intérêt de la sécurité veuillez laisser aucun bagage sans surveillance" ou do away with it completely: "Pour votre sécurité, nous vous invitons à ne laisser aucun bagage sans surveillance".

  10. AntC said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 12:29 am

    As well as the translations being apparently from a sentence that doesn't appear in the English; the sentence that does appear in English If you see any unattended luggage please … is not translated.

    So do we conclude GWR expect it is exclusively foreigners who leave luggage unattended; and exclusively Brits (or at least English speakers) who are alert to the danger? Cue stereotypes about Germans leaving towels on sun-loungers to 'reserve' them; and Brits being the ones who notice.

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 1:02 am

    "It's interesting that all six of the foreign languages on the sign seem to be working from this English sentence which is not on the sign"

    I don't remember if someone mentioned this during the seat-belt sign post, but English public signs often seems to be more meant to _remind_ people rather than _inform_ them (which is partly why it seems so compact and why non-native speakers often find them opaque).
    The British public has been taught for decades now to not leave baggage unattended so short reminders are considered to be all that's needed.

    Signage in other languages tends to take the informative function more seriously and spells things out more clearly (one reason it tends to be longer).

    This is maybe one of those rare areas where English speakers prefer high context rather than low context information.

    "Germans leaving towels on sun-loungers to 'reserve' them; and Brits being the ones who notice."

    Everybody notices. I've been in more than one hotel with signs (also in German) telling people to not do it – and it usually has no effect though I think some take a "if you can't beat 'em" attitude and people from other countries have started doing it too.

  12. Steven Marzuola said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 1:13 am

    The Spanish is grammatically correct but the beginning is somewhat odd: "For the sake of security …" Maybe it's said that way in Spain, but in Latin America it would probably be "Por razones de seguridad …" (for security reasons/purposes).

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 1:15 am

    @AntC, if the foreigners in question can't understand the English part of the sign, how would they report it to British Transport Police? You can't expect a Brit to understand any foreign language…

    The contrast between "Please" and an appeal to "interests" is a mild amusement to me whenever I travel through my local airport. They have tannoy announcements in Spanish, Valencian (Catalan), and English: the Spanish is

    En su propio interés, mantenga controlado su equipaje en todo momento

    The Valencian is similar, although it omits an equivalent for the word propio, so it's just "In your interest" rather than "In your own interest". But the English is

    Please do not leave your baggage unattended at any time

    I'm not sure whether they just bought the audio recording from a vendor who specialises in such things – I don't think the same voice is used for any of the other English announcements – or whether it's just evidence that for once someone engaged a professional translator rather than a nephew with three years' study in secondary school. If the latter, I'm fairly confident that they didn't also engage a professional English-speaking proofreader, because there's a poster about travellers' rights which sports the marvellous Cupertino of costumers for customers.

  14. David Morris said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    I have seen photos of similar signs with the ROC flag and 'Chinese (traditional)', the PRC flag and 'Chinese (simplified)', the UK flag and 'English (traditional)', and the USA flag and 'English (simplified)'.

  15. Thomas Rees said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 4:49 am

    @David Morris: Ooh! ‘English (simplified)’! I guess that’s like Harry Potter and the Scientist’s Stone or whatever it was. I refused to read the last Jasper Fforde book when it turned out to be weirdly Americanized.

  16. Travis said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 5:56 am

    Seems to me the obvious question is, what do similar signs in the PRC (or Taiwan, or other majority-Mandarin-speaking places) say? How do the Chinese themselves typically phrase such things?

  17. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 6:18 am

    Q: Is 任何 a translation of ""any"?
    A: yes.

  18. Graeme said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 6:22 am

    As the great majority of station users would be English speakers it isn't practically necessary to ask a disparate minority to be on the lookout or report suspicious bags. What they need to know is that if they dare forget or put down their bag some bomb squad robot might see to it that their visit is ruined.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    On the subject of flags and languages, several years ago I saw a sign at an Italian motorway rest area with a message in Italian and English. There was an Italian flag above the Italian message and an EU flag above the English one.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 9:02 am

    I have seen photos of similar signs with the ROC flag and 'Chinese (traditional)', the PRC flag and 'Chinese (simplified)', the UK flag and 'English (traditional)', and the USA flag and 'English (simplified)'.

    I supposed if you think of "traditional" and "simplified" as referring to the writing system, not the language itself, as the terms do with Chinese, then indeed American English is, for some words, simplified.

  21. P said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    The Portuguese version is correct but translates "in the interest of" word for word instead of using the more idiomatic "por razões de segurança" ("for security reasons").

  22. AndrewD said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    Re choice of flags, is there an ISO standard for such attributions?

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    As to AndrewD's question, here's something from that blog I linked to earlier with examples of things going comically wrong when people imprudently assumed ISO country codes and language codes were interchangeable (e.g. Gujarati represented by the flag of Guam …). http://flagsarenotlanguages.com/blog/2016/01/iso-language-codes-and-country-codes-dont-mix/

  24. Victor Mair said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    All over the University of Pennsylvania there are signs proclaiming that "Unattended Theft" is the most common crime on campus. That always struck me as a somewhat odd-sounding but extremely economical way of putting the matter. Just two words to convey a tremendous amount of information.

    I wonder if the same idea can be conveyed so concisely in other languages.

  25. zafrom said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 4:49 pm

    @Victor Mair @ 12:02 PM
    No one steals those signs?
    An interesting claim that "Unattended Theft" is the most common crime. Per https://www.publicsafety.upenn.edu/safety-initiatives/theft-awareness/, "Theft is the most reported crime within the Penn Patrol Zone. Of all thefts reported the majority are due to unattended or improperly secured items."
    Thinking alike, per https://publicsafety.princeton.edu/safety-security/unattended-theft, "Theft is the most reported crime at Princeton University. Of all thefts reported the majority are due to unattended or improperly secured items." If I correctly understand those two web pages, unattended theft is only the most common theft, not the most common crime.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

    Part of one of the posters:

    What do you think is the most reported crime on Penn's campus?

    Assault? Robbery? Burglary?

    Unattended Theft

    Theft comprises 81% of the total crime reported within the Penn Patrol Zone?

    70% of non-retail thefts are attributed to unattended or improperly secured items.

  27. Bathrobe said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    In my experience, the automatic translation of "any" as 任何 is a mark of translationese. Would it be possible to omit it?

  28. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 24, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

    Q: In my experience, the automatic translation of "any" as 任何 is a mark of translationese. Would it be possible to omit it?
    A: Yes. 任何 can be omitted here. the meaning is (almost) same.

  29. Eye said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 6:30 am

    In Spain, "en aras de la seguridad" is correct, but more fitting in a book or a journalistic text. For a sign in a train station it would've been better "por razones de seguridad" or "por motivos de seguridad". And if you really want to be concise, "por seguridad".

  30. Hans Adler said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    On flags for German: In an Austrian context, I have seen the Austrian flag used once. I think the usual approach by Austrians is to just avoid avoid using flags at all. (An approach that is basically without alternative in multilingual Switzerland.) A somewhat related historical problem was that after the Second World War, the was a short period when the subject "Deutsch" (German) was rebranded "Landessprache" (national language) in all Austrian schools.

    On flags for English: In a European context, the English flag (like the Scottish or Northern Irish one) is almost unknown except perhaps to hardcore football fans and a few serious Anglophiles. At least that seems to be the situation in Germany, and I except it's even worse in Romance and Slavic speaking countries. In my school career I probably saw the English flag once, in a lesson that mentioned the history of the Union Jack in passing, and that was that. Of course this would change if the English flag were used more often to signify the English language versions of websites. One could start with http://www.oireachtas.ie/ or http://www.gov.scot/

    The general problem is of course the abuse of national flags for languages because flags are so nice for the purpose and languages normally don't their own flags. (With the exception of constructed ones. Esperanto and Ido each have a standard flag, and Interlingua has several.) It should not be too hard to come up with flags for other languages as well. I expect a good designer could come up with a simple neutral design sufficiently evocative of both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes to be almost instantly recognisable. People might be slightly surprised at first, but certainly less so than the average German looking for an English version who sees the unfamiliar St George's Cross next to several instantly recognisable national flags.

  31. Guy_H said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 7:22 pm

    Rather late to comment, but judging from the responses above, none of the translations seem quite right? Either that or we are a picky bunch.

    The Chinese translation does not feel idomatic to me, mainly due to the excessive wordiness and some of the word choices. In my experience, Chinese signage is generally quite curt. PRC signs tend to be slightly more vernacular, while HK/Taiwan signage more literary.

    Something like 為了安全,請勿使行李無人照管 would work well ("for safety, please don't allow baggage to be unattended")

  32. Guy said,

    August 26, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

    Why does everyone think they're translating a sentence not in the English part? Based on the translations given, all the non-English phrases seem to be (verbose) translations of the bolded "Please keep your luggage with you at all times" at the top of the sign.

    (Of course, you could view that sentence as a translation from English to English of something like "Please don't leave your luggage unattended")

  33. Bathrobe said,

    August 27, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    I would have thought that a natural translation into Chinese might use something like "请管好随身物品".

  34. Bathrobe said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    @ Wang Yujiang

    Yes. 任何 can be omitted here. the meaning is (almost) same.

    Actually, I don't think they are "almost" the same at all. Keeping in mind the pitfalls of equating expressions across languages, 任何 in Chinese is roughly equivalent to saying "any at all" in English.

    By adding 任何, the meaning of the sentence changes from

    If you see any unattended luggage, please contact a member of staff or British Transport Police officer


    If you see any unattended luggage at all, please contact a member of staff or British Transport Police officer.

    The degree of emphasis involved is quite different. "Any" by itself in English is neutral; it is automatically added to this kind of structure as a matter of course. "Any at all", on the other hand, is emphatic and impresses on the listener the need to report any and every piece of luggage that is unattended. 任何 strikes me has having a generally similar effect.

    任何 should not be used as an automatic equivalent of "any".

  35. Wang Yujiang said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    If you see any unattended luggage, please contact a member of staff or British Transport Police officer.

    In other sentences the degree of emphasis involved may be “quite” different, but in this translation (adding 任何 or omitting任何), the meanings are “almost” the same. Adding 任何is with emphasis, while omitting任何 is without emphasis.
    I prefer adding 任何, but omitting任何 is OK.

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