Feel free to play this piano

« previous post | next post »

While passing through Hartsfield Atlanta airport a few weeks back, Neil Dolinger passed a piano located in a place where passersby could freely play it.  A sign nearby (see photograph below) encourages this in 12 different languages:

The Chinese version is way off:

Zhè jià gāngqín shì nǐ wán


"This piano is you play"

Amazingly, Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and Baidu Fanyi all render this defective Chinese sentence into felicitous English:

"This piano is for you to play."

It's hard for me to imagine how these three major online machine translation software programs could not only take incorrect Chinese and turn it into correct English, but the exact same English at that!

If we reverse the direction of translation and go from English "This piano is for you to play" to Chinese, two of the three machine translators, Bing Translator and Baidu Fanyi, yield the identical, decent result:

Zhè jià gāngqín shì gěi nǐ yǎnzòu de


Google Translate's version is not so good (wrong measure word, wrong verb):

Zhè ge gāngqín shì gōng nǐ wán de


Yixue Yang's suggestion is superior:

Zhè jià gāngqín gōng nín tánzòu


For the verb, wán 玩 is not right because it signifies playing with a toy, playing in a sandbox, etc.  Yǎnzòu 演奏 is better, but it sounds too formal and pompous, as though one were performing in a concert hall.  A verb with tán 弹 ("pluck / play [a stringed instrument]") is to be preferred.

Qing Liao puts it more simply this way:

I would go with “kě gōng shǐyòng 可供使用” ("available for use"). However in China, most pianos are not allowed to be used by anyone other than the owner, and one in a public place would normally have a sign reading “jìnzhǐ chùpèng 禁止触碰” ("don't touch"). So there is usually nothing attached when the piano is accessible.

Now, as for the translations into the other 11 languages, I leave it for Language Log readers to assess their accuracy.  If you're dealing with a non-Roman letter script, please provide Romanization for all words and phrases that you discuss.

[Thanks to Zeyao Wu]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

    Is German the only first-person one?

  2. Scott said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

    I'm learning Serbian (Serbo-Croat/BCS/whatever).

    "Klavir je tvoj. Zasviraj."

    It means "The piano is yours. Play." (Both "yours" and the command are you singular informal. The writers correctly used a verb for to play an instrument unlike in Chinese.)

    I'm not saying I could render it better, but I'd probably write, "Sviraj klavir slobodno."

    "Freely play the piano." Serbs seem to throw in "slobodno" ("freely") a lot in places we'd say something like "if you'd like" in English.

    My main confusion is zasviraj vs. sviraj. Google Translate gives Zasvirati as to play/to strike up/to begin to play. I don't know whether it is the perfective of svirati, in which case I wouldn't use it or whether it really does mean to begin to play in stead of just to play.

  3. Yuval said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

    The Hebrew has the wrong sense of "play" – the one reserved for games, לשחק /lesaxek/. For an instrument your need to לנגן, /lenagen/.
    Moreover, the subcat frame would be wrong in the current form – you don't just play a direct object piano, you play *on* על /al/ a piano. In this construction, the preposition would be in stranded postnominally with a masculine 3rd person declension: בשבילך לנגן עליו /bishvilxa lenagrn alav/ "for you to play on.him".

  4. Yuval said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

    It looks like the Arabic one got those two kinks correct, though.
    (forgive my typos btw, it's a small phone keyboard)

  5. Fernando Colina said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

    Not only is German (I'm your piano. Play me) is the most compelling one of the ones I can read. It's, unlikely at it may seem, much more folksy than the straight-jacket French or the pedestrian Spanish and Italian. The language that Google Translate identifies as Croatian is not bad either: "This piano is yours. Play it"

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 10:38 pm

    "So that you play — this piano is" (?) — OK this had better not be idiomatic Japanese…

  7. Levantine said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 1:25 am

    The Turkish is grammatically nonstandard and uses the wrong word for play (the one meant for games rather than instruments). My suggested translation: “Bu piyanoyu çalmaktan çekinmeyiniz” (Don’t hesitate to play this piano). The verb “çalmak” also means “to steal”, so the sentence risks being wilfully misconstrued as an invitation to make off with the instrument!

  8. Bathrobe said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 1:50 am


    Anata ga purei suru tame ni, kono piano ga arimasu.
    "This piano exists, so that you can purei".

    And no, プレイする purei suru is not generally used for musical instruments in Japanese, except in foreign-sounding expressions like kībōdo pureyā to shite purei suru 'play as a keyboard player'.

    Nor is it usually used for children playing, although it is found in borrowed expressions like purei rūmu 'play room' and purei supotto 'play spot'. It's also familiar from sporting expressions like fain purei 'fine play' and setto purei 'set play', as well as theatrical contexts like myūjikaru purei 'musical play'. (Examples from Kotobank).

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 2:53 am

    The French is sound too, literally "This piano is at your disposition/disposal(?)", though not quite the most encouraging version possible, I guess.

  10. krogerfoot said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 4:29 am

    Seconded that the Japanese is terrible, even taking into account the weird Japanese compulsion to coin stupid English-esque usages. Maybe I'd put it as このピアノをどうぞご自由にお引きいただけます, which my Japanese friends would say is too ornate ("Please, feel free to do us the favor of playing this piano"). Possibly more effective in disarming the reader and overcoming their inhibitions: ぼくはピアノ君です!引いていいよ! ("I'm Piano Boy! It's OK, you can play me!")

  11. krogerfoot said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 4:47 am

    Does the English say "This piano is yours to play"? That's what I'm guessing is the source of some of these unidiomatic translations.

  12. krogerfoot said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 5:00 am

    Apologies—I missed the quoted "This piano is for you to play" in the OP.

  13. James Wimberley said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 5:15 am

    OT for a linguistics blog, but where did the DIY piano movement start? I've seen them in Belgium and the Netherlands.

  14. Vilinthril said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    The German is still off, though – it should be “Klavier”, not “clavier”.

  15. Not a naive speaker said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

    My German translation would be:

    Ich bin dein Klavier. Spiel auf mir.

    In German it is always "spielen"; there is no difference playing on an instrument or with a toy. Clavier was used 250 years ago for all key instuments (clavier in French: keyboard).

  16. Scott said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    I checked with my Serbian girlfriend and zasviraj does mean "start to play," so it differs in meaning not just perfective/imperfection from sviraj. But she also agrees that my offering of "Sviraj klavir slobodno" is best.

  17. nemanja said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

    Scott, in this type of situation Serbian would always use the polite form so "Slobodno svirajte klavir". Also, "klavir je tvoj" connotes ownership rather than permission – I would say something like "Klavir je tu za vas. Slobodno svirajte" or "Izvolite svirati".

  18. IG said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 9:20 pm

    Russian is understandable but off – it is a direct word for word translation of 'this piano is for you to play', but it is incorrect Russian – in English it would sound something like 'this piano is for You, for playing'.

  19. Gwen Katz said,

    October 20, 2018 @ 11:42 pm

    To me the Russian sounds like you're being given the piano as a gift so that you'll have something to play. It's definitely not quite right.

    I love how fun and casual (if still incorrect) the German version is.

    But what jumps out at me is that the Russian is in the formal and the German is in the informal. If these were all dumped in a machine translator, then it's, presumably, picking formal or informal based on which is used more often in the training text. I wonder what that says about the different languages.

  20. Vanya said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 1:10 am

    “Spiel auf mir.”

    No, that would be an invitation to climb on top of the piano and start horsing around. “Spiel mich” is right.

    I think “Zasviraj” is fine in B-S-C-M. Literally “Start playing!” Maybe a little too familar to be “normal” as a public invitation but captures the spirit of what the airport is trying to encourage.

  21. TheLong1930s said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 3:29 am

    The Italian is off – 'per te per suonare' suggests that it's yours, and what you have to do with it is play it – the sort of thing you would say to a small child who'd never seen a piano before when you gave them one as a present. I'm not sure what, if anything, is written on public pianos in Italy (I only ever recall seeing on, at the main station on Naples), but I'd imagine something like 'Questo pianoforte è alla disposizione di chi vuole suonarlo' or similar.

  22. Dr. Decay said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 3:52 am

    I've seen such pianos in various train stations and airports un Europe, but I can't remember what their signs said. The one I do remember was in a bar long ago: "Feel free to tickle the ivories". Google translate has a lot of trouble with that.

  23. Robledo said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    Apparently, this goes back to a street action initiated by British artist Luke Jerram that has been touring cities across the world over the last decade. The instruction on the street pianos always reads "Play me, I'm Yours", from which the German-Atlantan and the Croatian-Atlantan versions seem to be inspired.
    As to the "Spiel mich/Spiel auf mir"-controversy: While I think both versions are perfectly correct (Vanya, see Duden under "spielen": "auf zwei Flügeln spielen"), "Play me, I'm Yours" appears to have been consistently rendered as "Spiel mich, ich gehöre dir" in the German-speaking written media (slavish translation may have played a role).

  24. Yoandri Dominguez said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 6:54 am

    meant to say, *highlight you the 'usted'.

  25. RW said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 9:00 am

    I don't know what Yoandri Dominguez is saying about the Spanish, because I can't understand their English. But the Spanish doesn't sound idiomatic to me. (though I'm not a fluent speaker) Interesting that it uses the formal "usted" though, and the French uses "votre", but the German and Italian are informal. And the German is obviously very different in tone to the Spanish. I'd have imagined they would have a simple phrase in mind that they would want translated more or less directly and equivalently into all the languages so I wonder how such variation comes about in the design process.

  26. Robert Coren said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    @Not a naive speaker: "Clavier was used 250 years ago for all key instuments (clavier in French: keyboard)." And probably more recently than that. My impression is that the "c"s in words borrowed into German mostly didn't become "k"s until sometime in the 20th century.

    @James Wimberley: I saw one in one of the big Paris Metro stations last year.

  27. Ben Olson said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 3:05 pm


    I've also heard プレイする refer to video games.

  28. Walter Underwood said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

    There is a "Play me, I'm yours" project, but they don't list a piano in Atlanta.


    Atlanta does have Pianos for Peace.


  29. Scott said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 9:56 pm


    So true that a Serbian would use any chance to use the word "izvolite."

    I change my offering to "Slobodno svirajte klavir. Izvolite."


  30. Kris said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    The Spanish is correct, but it sounds so stilted and kind of un-idiomatic to me. I'd prefer something like "Tócame, si te da la gana" given what kind of style they seem to be aiming at.

RSS feed for comments on this post