Bad Chinese

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Sign south of the demolished Pfeiffer Bridge on Highway 1 in Monterey County (photograph taken on August 12, 2017 by Richard Masoner while on a Big Sur bike trip, via Flickr):

Bad machine translation

This is not Chinglish.  It is the opposite of Chinglish:  English poorly translated into Chinese.

The sign says:

Zhǔdòng gōnglù bùyào zǒu zài zhōngjiān de lùxiàn bǎochí bái xiàn de quánlì

It's difficult for me to make sense of this sign.  Chinese friends to whom I show this sign are also totally confused by it.

Forced translation into English:

"Active highway.  Don't walk / ride in the center line / lane.  Keep / maintain the rights of the white line."

Word for word translations:

zhǔdòng 主动 active; initiative; driving

gōnglù 公路 highwayroad

bùyào 不要 do not

zǒu 走 walk; ride

zài 在 in; at

zhōngjiān 中间 between; inside

de 的 of

lùxiàn 路线 route; lane

bǎochí 保持 keep; maintain

báixiàn 白线 white line (perhaps signifying "fog line" here)

de 的 of

quánlì 权利 right(s); legal right; droit

I think what they're trying to say is something like this:

Busy highway.  Don't walk / ride in the center lane.  Stay to the right of the white line.

Translated into Chinese, that would be something like this:

Fánmáng de gōnglù. Bùyào zài zhōngjiān chēdào shàng zǒulù/qíchē. Qǐng kào bái xiàn de yòubiān.

Of course, there are many other possibilities, depending upon exactly what the original English was.  For those who are interested, here I'll give half a dozen other versions suggested by respondents, but only in Chinese characters with Hanyu Pinyin:

Chēliú fánmáng. Jìnzhǐ zài zhōngjiān chēdào (or maybe jīdòng chēdào?) shàng zǒulù/qíchē. Bǎochí zài bái xiàn yòufāng xíngshǐ.
车流繁忙。禁止在中间车道(or maybe 机动车道?) 上走路/骑车。保持在白线右方行驶。

Fánmáng lùduàn, xíngrén hé fēi jīdòngchē yánjìn zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào, qǐng zài bái xiàn yòucè xíngzǒu huò qíxíng.

Gōnglù fánmáng, qǐng wù yú zhōngjiān chēdào xíngzǒu/xíngshǐ. Xíngzǒu/xíngshǐ shí qǐng kào yòu, wù chāoyuè bái xiàn.

Gōnglù fánmáng, qǐng wù zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào, qǐng kào bái xiàn yòucè xíngshǐ.

Gōnglù chēliú liàngdà, fēi jīdòngchē qǐng bǎochí zài bái xiàn yòucè, wù zhànyòng zhōngjiān chēdào.

Gōnglù chēliàng duō. Qǐng wù zài zhōngyāng chēdào shàng xíngzǒu huò qíchē. Xíngrén qǐng zǒu bái xiàn yòubiān.

They all mean roughly the same thing as what I proposed above in English and Chinese (they were basically following my lead [mine was considered correct, but too colloquial for a sign]).

[h.t.:  Martin Delson; thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Fangyi Cheng, and Jing Wen]


  1. John Swindle said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 11:12 pm

    Where is the term "fog line" at home?

  2. maidhc said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 12:26 am

    Who put up this sign? The county?

    Monterey is the home of the famed Defense Language Institute. You'd think they could find someone to look over their sign.

    It's odd to see a sign just in Chinese. When they put up signs for tourists they usually have them in multiple languages.

  3. Ninedragonspot said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 2:42 am

    What is the opposite of Chinglish? Engnese?

  4. John Swindle said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 3:46 am

    Or maybe students of the Defense Language Institute posted the sign, and what we take for bad Chinese is really Defense Language.

  5. David Moser said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 4:40 am

    At last! I like to see Chinglish-in-reverse, it vindicates all the hapless Chinese functionaries who have to produce English-language signs for public venues. We're seeing more of this kind of thing as Chinese tourism increases.

  6. ajay said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 4:48 am

    "It's odd to see a sign just in Chinese. When they put up signs for tourists they usually have them in multiple languages."

    Definitely. At least you'd expect it to be in English as well. Is there really a huge problem with specifically monoglot Chinese people walking down the middle of Highway 1?

  7. Rodger C said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 6:53 am

    @John Swindle: I absolutely can't imagine anyone at MAFAC perpetrating this.

  8. Mark Metcalf said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 7:33 am

    Occam's Razor. Perhaps we should consider the ever-disappointing Google Translate as a possible source of this linguistic atrocity?

    When you enter 主动公路不要走在中间的路线保持白线的权利, the translation is:
    Take the initiative not to walk in the middle of the route to keep the white line right

    And when you enter "Take the initiative not to walk in the middle of the route to keep the white line right", the translation is: 主动不要走在路线的中间,以保持白线正确

    That's quite close to the "主动公路不要走在中间的路线保持白线的权利" on the sign. And with a bit of effort (which I'm not willing to expend), one could probably find a reasonable English language phrase that could generate the resulting Chinese text.

  9. tsts said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

    Related but a little off-topic, but there was an interesting segment in This American Live on 8/4, about Chinese names for streets in NYC's Chinatown, that languagelog readers might be interested in. See and scroll two thirds down to "Act Two".

  10. Marianne said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 6:52 pm

    What an interesting topic for translation studies!

  11. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

    Related to tsts’ comment, here is Pinyin News’ rundown of SF Chinatown street signs.

  12. maidhc said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    Eric: Not just the streets.

    KQED-TV did a documentary that talked about the telephone operators at the San Francisco Chinatown exchange. They needed to be fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Taishanese. Every city on the west coast that had a sizeable Chinese population had its own Chinese name, and often a different one in each topolect. The operators had to know all of them.

    I'm not sure if it was this one. KQED has done several documentaries about various aspects of SF Chinatown.

  13. Eidolon said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

    "What is the opposite of Chinglish? Engnese?"

    Chinglish stands for "Chinese-[influenced] English," so, logically the opposite would be "English-[influenced] Chinese." Unfortunately, the leading vowel in English prevents us from simply prepending the prefix, so Engnese seems to be the best we can do to parallel the construction, but it is too ambiguous, since many languages end with -nese. Perhaps Chengnese would make it more explicit?

  14. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 12:28 am


    Here is a list of some of those “old-timey” Chinese names.

  15. maidhc said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 3:39 am

    Eric: That is a very interesting list. However I think it has some errors in it. For example Watsonville OR is a tiny place, but Watsonville CA is much larger and has a thriving agricultural economy, and in the past I believe a successful fishing industry as well. Chinese were heavily involved in the coastal fishing industry in the 19th century.

    I was just in Watsonville yesterday, and for what it's worth there are currently six Chinese restaurants there, not counting Panda Express. Some nice old architecture in the downtown. And just to the south in Salinas (市连打) there are around 20 Chinese restaurants. So still a Chinese presence in what is now a primarily Latino community.

    Kalama is in Washington, not in Oregon, although it is on the other side of the Columbia River from Oregon. Kalama is interesting as it is said to be a town founded by Hawaiians who strayed from their home in the days of sailing ships. (Citation needed.) At one time it had a sizeable Chinatown populated by workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad.

    It would be a great research project for a graduate student to research some of these names. I believe that some of those Chinatown telephone operators I mentioned are still alive, and it would be worthwhile recording their oral histories.

  16. Troy S. said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 10:07 am

    As far as a portmanteau word for English-influenced Chinese, I think
    "Engwén" would work well, or perhaps "Engyǔ."

  17. Tao said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 8:16 am

    This seems a helpful illustration of clumsily trying to translate phrasing from the source language to the target language instead of investigating what speakers of the target language would actually say. Chinese-speaking transportation authorities would probably post something much shorter, such as 禁止橫越中央線, or 靠右行駛, or perhaps 多事故路段,請靠右慢行.

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