Way out

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This sign appears on a door of the National Museum of China in Beijing:

It's probably just as well that the people who affixed the sign to the door didn't translate the wording at the bottom into English. Who knows how badly they might have mangled the seven characters / syllables (three words) of which it is composed:

Zhōngguó guójiā bówùguǎn 中国国家博物馆 (National Museum of China)

The two large characters at the top look innocent and elegant enough, and they constitute one of the most frequently seen words in public spaces, but the Chinglish translation "Export" fails miserably:

chūkǒu 出口

For this Google Translate has the following:

Main translation: Export

Main dictionary entry: Exit

noun: export, exit, outlet, outfall

verb: utter, go out, speak

adjective: exporting

phrase: Way out

(Babel Fish also gives "Export", whereas Baidu Fanyi has "Exit"; neither Babel Fish nor Baidu Fanyi provides any alternative translations.)

For such a bad translation to appear on a door of such a prestigious national institution in the heart of the nation's capital, at the very edge of Tiananmen Square, is a tremendous embarrassment. Moreover, this crude translation clashes with the opulence of the door itself.

How is it possible that the authorities could spend so much money on the construction of this luxuriant new museum building, one that is visited by hundreds of thousands of English speakers every year, but not follow through with a serviceable translation? Jing Wen, who sent the above photograph to me, offers the following suggestions for why this sort of mistranslation happens again and again in China:

I think that the person who made this sign did not know English. He may have looked up the English translation of 出口 in a dictionary and got the word "export".

It is a big problem that there are a lot of translation mistakes on signs in China. I am a little confused. On the one hand, young students in China speak English much better than I did when I was in college. On the other hand, more and more such mistakes appear. I think this phenomenon indicates the chaos of management in China. Nobody is in charge of putting up the right signs.

I agree with Jing. My impression gained from visiting China scores of times during the past thirty-plus years is that the general level of English competence in the population has improved dramatically, especially among those under the age of thirty. Yet Chinglish signs continue to proliferate. Indeed, there seems to be a veritable explosion of Chinglish, since it has become fashionable to include it on signs, announcements, and especially advertisements. Much of it is quite ghastly; it would appear that what is important is simply to display English so as to be au courant. Whether the English is correct does not seem to matter much, so long as it is some kind of English, i.e., Chinglish will do.


  1. Carl said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    In British English is it standard to write "Way Out" instead of "Exit"? I ask because all the exit signs I saw in South Korea were labelled "Way Out," which made me giggle as I thought about how "groovy" they were too.

  2. q said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:21 am

    Victor, do you have any insights on why it's uncommon to see this sort of thing in Taiwan? Can it really be explained by the 20 or so additional years that Taiwan has been exposed to the West?

  3. dw said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:22 am


    Yes: "Way Out", meanng "exit", is quite frequently seen on signs in Britain. Do a Google image search on the phrase and you'll see some examples.

  4. Outis said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:25 am

    This phenomenon is hardly unique to China. I believe LL had also documented mangled English to Chinese and other language translations in the US.

    From personal experience, I believe the tendency to not care about accurate translation is very wide spread in any predominanty monolingual (or at least mono-written-lingual) society. People in such societies simply aren't very sensitive to the complexity of translation, and sometimes believe dictionaries to be reliable substitutes to someone who actually speaks the language.

  5. Richard Futrell said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    Here's an example of this phenomenon with an interesting twist. I was once riding the subway in Beijing late enough to be on a train when service ended for the night. A recorded announcement came over the PA system, including an English translation by a woman with a completely flawless American accent.
    And she said "Welcome to take Beijing subway again!" (or something similar–the salient part is "welcome to take").
    Now this woman was either a native speaker or highly educated in English, and yet she still recorded "Welcome to take Beijing Subway." How does this happen? Did she tell her supervisors that the script she was supposed to read was bad English? Or maybe her supervisors didn't care? Or she didn't care?
    There are plenty of English-speaking foreigners in Beijing, and plenty of Chinese people who speak fine English, any single one of whom could correct this kind of mistake. Mystery of mysteries

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    Wow. This is a rather basic sign that you tend to see all the time on any city trip, and one that it important functionally. (In fact, I would be able to understand the Chinese version after only one short visit to Hong Kong. Of course, without being able to actually read it aloud — I don't speak any Mandarin or Cantonese. But it's impossible not to internalise it.) I can't believe the person making the sign had not seen one before.

    This probably serves to show that people now believe machine translation without any reservations. Maybe they thought that what GT provided was "fancier" than a simple Exit.

    @Richard Futrell: I have a suspicion that the woman could have been a text-to-speech system in fact. We have TTS announcements on some of the buses in my city, and some of them sound natural enough. Try the phrase on this system, for example. Sounds good enough to me, especially if I imagine it played on a noisy train. It even pronounces Beijing "correctly".

  7. yonray said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 4:28 am

    @ Richard Futrell. I've worked long enough in a large, hierarchical, non-English-speaking organisation to have a pretty good idea: the boss's lack of skill with English is taboo. You speak English and want a job? Read this script, then, which the boss wrote: don't ask questions which might expose him or her. It's a metaphor for a great deal of what can go wrong in complex organisations run by people with egos or neuroses.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    @myself: I’ve just travelled on one of those TTS buses, and all that thinking time led me to the conclusion that the reason for these kinds of debacles is that People Don’t Notice, and even if they do, they don’t know what it is they notice, or how to fix it. They may not care, too, but that’s just on top of not noticing.

    When the buses first arrived, one of the announcements was wildly wrong prosodically; a clitic at the end of a sentence was stressed as if it was a content word. How could it have happened?

    (1) The people who built the TTS system didn’t notice. Would I have noticed? Maybe, maybe not. If you tested a TTS system using e.g. a corpus from a quality newspaper (as I would have done, because one of the major corpora in the local language comes from such a source), you wouldn’t get that clitic at the end of the sentence, because the paper is edited by pedant copy-editors, and the clitic isn’t supposed to be there, like a preposition at the end of an English sentence ;) In the Beijing case, that’s obviously Google not noticing the translation fiasco because I — would imagine — “export” is far more frequent online than “exit”, especially in the Chinese context.

    (2) The people who built the buses and/or the transport company didn’t notice. After several months, the announcement was replaced; the transport company must have received enough complaints to finally realise there was some kind problem. But the replacement recording not only “fixed” the wording; it also used a living human voice. Another lexical item used such a rampant hypercorrect pronunciation that I’m pretty sure that they didn’t really realise even at this point what exactly had been wrong. Somebody was told, “this sounds wrong; we need a better version”… Let’s wait for the Beijing museum to replace the sign and we’ll see what happens. Probably they’ll get it right…

    (3) The reaction in (2) above was what it was probably for another reason, too. The buses were built by an external company who in turn had bought the TTS system from another external company. So, somewhere along the line, someone must have thought “Let’s make sure to show it wasn’t our fault; we’re customers here, too (just like you, esteemed passengers)!”. The way complex projects are handled these days guarantees that errors are always blamed on subcontractors. Error outsourcing. The newest buses and trams have now reverted to 100% human voices.

    (4) Finally, all of this happened in the local language; we aren’t talking about English in China. There are about a million native speakers within a 20 mile radius. And still too few noticed. Granted, it was far more subtle than “export” for “exit”, but the difference is just quantitative.

    Sorry for the length of this; at least it’s only partially off-topic.

  9. Mark Dunan said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    I think Yonray's got it entirely correct. It's one of the more frustrating things living in Asia and working with translation and interpreting: dancing around the egos of superiors who don't like to be told that they're sometimes wrong.

  10. Barney said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    @Carl: I think both Way Out and Exit are widely used on signs in England. Both are standard.

    There may be a slight difference in that Exit is more likely to be used near the edge of a building, while Way Out is more likely to be used internally to show the direction towards the exit, but I'm not certain about that.

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    @yonray: Read this script, then, which the boss wrote: don't ask questions which might expose him or her

    In this context, I think it would be wrong to single out Chinese corporations; I think this exists in corporate / business culture everywhere. Some years back, I worked for a ghastly little publishing firm that regularly put out advertising with spelling mistakes and punctuation errors – simply because there was no mechanism for running the CEO's precious copy past anyone competent.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 2:32 am

    From a reader in Silicon Valley:

    The Computer History Museum opened a shiny new exhibit in January, 2011, with substantial monetary support from Bill Gates. In recognition of this, an etched glass sign was installed at the entrance of the exhibit. Part of the design was an excerpt from the original Microsoft BASIC interpreter, in a form almost, but not quite, familiar to a programmer of the era. Each line had a left half containing several two-digit hexadecimal values, followed by a right half with the "human readable" equivalents, for those bytes that were valid ASCII characters. But there were a few oddities:

    1) Each line had a non-power-of-two number of bytes. Very unusual for a machine of that era.

    2) More importantly, there was a _different_ number of bytes in the two halves. I do not remember which, but it was either 10 hexadecimal bytes and nine "human" characters, or vice versa. That is, there is no way the two "equivalent" sides really were.

    It's pretty clear what happened. Some graphic designer liked the "look" of such a "core dump" and incorporated it, but then cropped one of the sides. This was as much a "foreign language" to that designer as a different human language would have been. More importantly, apparently nobody had the thought of checking the design with a "native speaker" (of which you can imagine a Computer History Museum has a plentiful supply) before spending a lot of money to etch and temper a huge piece of glass.

    Eventually, it was fixed, but my point in telling the tale is that this sort of thing is not limited to Asia, or even to human languages. Whenever you treat an utterance you don't understand as "decoration", you can get this.

  13. A.M. said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 6:23 am

    Well, er, the only thing that is unusial in this sign, is the fact that it's appeared in such a prestigious insitution. Otherwise, it's a pretty common thing. My favorite is the one about how one of the ESL profs of the college I went to (Pedagogical Institute of Samara, Russia), accidentally observed one of his English-major students acting as a translator for a group of Americans. The group was entering a store, and the student loudly announced: "From yourself!".

    The professor was at a loss as to why the student would say such a thing, until he noticed the "От себя!" sign on the door. The sign is a standard way in Russia to say push the door to open, and the student simply offered the literal translation!

  14. R.B. said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 5:48 am

    In Russian, "exit" and "way out" make the same word too, by the way.
    So they had to change the signs in the Moscow subway that said "no exit (or way out)", because those apparently caused many suicides.

  15. A.M. said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    R.B. – Strangely I heard exactly the same thing (having to change the signs due to suicide problems) about the London Undeground 8-)))

  16. Anthony said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 1:07 am

    @Ray Girvan – that's more a function of corporate culture – I've been correcting my bosses' writing since I was in my 20s. That's never caused me trouble at work. But that may be partly because in my field, we can be held personally liable for errors, and so people are more willing to listen to someone else who tells them they're wrong.

  17. Anthony said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    I must add that one of those bosses was a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., who otherwise acted in rather stereotypical ways.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 11:29 am


    And what is your field?

  19. wei said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    In China, the phrase "chu kou" is most frequently used in connection with "export & import" businesses, e.g., "jin chu kou jiaoyihui" (Import & Export Convention). I wonder whoever did the translation might actually have that meaning (instead of "exit") in mind, i.e., that door in fact leads to a museum office/gift shop which handles or issues "export" permits so foreign tourists could take the gifts they bought at the museum abroad?

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