Don't eat and don't drink

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Wang Tong sent in this photograph of a sign which a friend of hers took during a visit to Japan.  The Chinese translation is quite amusing.

The Japanese says:

heya de no inshoku kinshi
部屋での飲食禁止
"Eating and drinking are prohibited in the room"

That's fine, and it's exactly what the English says, which is also fine.

As for the English, we may make it more succinct by substituting the imperative for the passive:  "No eating or drinking in the room."

When it comes to the Chinese, however, it sounds odd and wrong:

zài fángjiān lǐ bù chī bù hē
在房间里不吃不喝
"not eating or drinking in the room"

Because the Chinese is unidiomatic and arguably incorrect, it is difficult to translate in a way that sounds right.  Most native speakers who see the Chinese on the sign will think it's funny because it seems to be suggesting that occupants of this room are going on a self-destructive, even suicidal, hunger strike.

Here are some reactions:

1.

It sounds like a depiction of someone who is fasting and dehydrating him/herself on his/her own volition in the room, since "不" here indicates a sense of initiative. It's like someone refuses to eat or drink, rather than he/she is forbidden to eat or drink.

2.

We mainly use "bù chī bù hē 不吃不喝" ("not eating or drinking") to refer to the way someone commits suicide. The formal way of expressing 不吃不喝 should be "juéshí 绝食" ("fasting; go on a hunger strike"),  which can be used to describe what Gandhi did in his non-violent resistance.

3.

We can say, "Wǒ zài fángjiān lǐ bù chī bù hē 我在房间里不吃不喝", which means that "I do not (want to) eat and drink in the room." Here the decision of not eating and drinking is made by myself, and I'm not forbidden by anyone to eat and drink. However, the Japanese sign means that no one is allowed to eat and drink in this room. In short, I think "bù chī bù hē 不吃不喝" means "do/does not eat and drink", which is totally different from "eating and drinking are prohibited."

Since signs tend to be more formal, the colloquial tone of the Chinese wording also seems inappropriate.

"Bù 不" is not a suitable word for negative imperative sentences. To tell someone not to do something, it is more natural to say "bié 别" ("don't") or "jìnzhǐ 禁止" ("it is prohibited / forbidden").  For example, "bié chī 别吃" ("don't eat"), "bié hē 别喝" ("don't drink"), "jìnzhǐ chīhē 禁止吃喝" ("eating and drinking are prohibited").

As for the verbs, generally signs tend to be closer to Classical Chinese, so rather than "chīhē 吃喝" ("eating and drinking"), "yǐnshí 饮食" ("drinking and eating") would normally be preferred.

Here are possible acceptable correct versions of what could be written in Chinese to tell people that eating and drinking are prohibited / not permitted in the room:

fángjiān nèi jìnzhǐ yǐnshí
房间内禁止饮食

wūnèi jìnzhǐ yǐnshí
屋内禁止饮食

shìnèi jìnzhǐ yǐnshí
室内禁止饮食

The following wordings are of the "please do not" type:

fángjiān nèi qǐng wù yǐnshí
房间内请勿饮食

qǐng wù zài cǐ fángjiān nèi yǐnshí
请勿在此房间内饮食

The lesson learned here is that, although we may include all the right words in something we say or write, the message may not get through because we use the words in the wrong way.

[Thanks to Lin Zhang, Yijie Zhang, Qing Liao, Chenfeng Wang, and Yixue Yang]



19 Comments »

  1. Toby said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 11:13 pm

    I suspect the message would get through to [Chinese] speakers because 飲食禁止 in the Japanese is quite clear in Chinese (even if the order is reversed).

  2. Kristian said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 1:51 am

    It's a small point, but wouldn't the English would be more idiomatic if it said either "in this room" or specified the room, e.g. "in the classroom"?

  3. reader_not_academe said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 3:11 am

    just a minor / not-so-minor quibble, because this is language log, and because otherwise we risk geoff pullum getting here first:

    > As for the English, we may make it more succinct by substituting the imperative for the passive: "No eating or drinking in the room."

    i don't think there is a passive here; the -ing suffix simply nominalizes the two verbs, so they can become friends with the "no" determiner.

    i'm really hard-pressed to come up with any passive formulation for the sign. the closest would be "nothing must be eaten or drunk in the room," which is neither idiomatic, nor particularly short.

    maybe for fun's sake we could go to "forbidden to be drunk or eaten in the room," but that would take us far beyond chinglish territory even.

  4. Mimi K. said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 3:51 am

    @reader_not_academe: By "substituting the imperative for the passive", he meant "replacing the passive with the imperative" (which would have been clearer).

    He wasn't saying that "No eating or drinking in the room" is passive. He was saying it is imperative and could be an alternative for the sign's passive "Eating and drinking are prohibited in the room."

  5. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 4:15 am

    Mimi K., I don't think the "are prohibited" version is passive either. "Prohibited" is simply an adjective here; replacing it with "unacceptable", for example, clearly reveals the construction to be active.

    You can find discussion of so-called adjectival passives in Pullum's "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive".

  6. Krogerfoot said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    I don't understand the quibble with identifying "X is prohibited" as passive, and I don't see how replacing "prohibited" with an adjective shows it to be an adjective itself. Can we say "Eating and drinking are *very prohibited" or "*more prohibited"? I guess it could be an attributive adjective, like "spoken" in spoken language, but "X is prohibited here" seems to make just as much sense as a passive construction as "Spanish is spoken here." Granted, I've looked into adjectival passives not at all, but saying "'prohibited' is simply an adjective" seems like a brash claim.

  7. reader_not_academe said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 8:16 am

    @Mimi K > By "substituting the imperative for the passive", he meant "replacing the passive with the imperative" (which would have been clearer).

    ouch! my bad. i was definitely not reading this carefully enough. "substitute X for Y" tends to get me.

  8. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 10:09 am

    Krogerfoot, "prohibited" here is stative rather than eventive. That is why it is an adjective and the sentence active.

    Here's an enlightening link: http://www.ling.cam.ac.uk/li8/passive.pdf

    And the relevant section from the Pullum piece I mentioned above:

    The term 'adjectival passive' is often applied (perhaps not very felicitously) to active clauses with predicative adjective phrases in which the adjective derives from the past participle of a verb and has a passive-like meaning. There is frequently an ambiguity between be passives and adjectival ones. For example, The door was locked is ambiguous: as a be passive it says that at a particular time someone took the action of locking the door, and as an adjectival passive it says that during some past time period the door was in its locked state. Since the complement in this kind of clause is an adjective phrase, verbs other than be can be used (The door seemed locked, as far as I could tell), and so can adjectives derived with the negative prefix un- (The island was uninhabited by humans).

  9. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

    A correction to what I posted earlier: verbal passives can also be stative.

    The clearest indication to me that we are dealing with an adjective here is that you can replace "are" with "remain" and "seem":

    "Eating and drinking remain prohibited in the room".
    "Eating and drinking seem prohibited in the room".

  10. Alyssa said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 5:08 pm

    I agree with Kristian that it should be "in this room", otherwise I'm left wondering which room – though of course in context I'm sure it's clear enough.

    Also, if we want to try and capture the humor of the Chinese mistranslation in English, maybe it could be something like: "starving in this room" or "starvation in this room" ?

  11. Ellen K. said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

    The English is clear and grammatical, at least, even if not quite normal English usage.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 3:36 am

    With "grammatical", I agree; with "clear", I do not. If (for example) the notice were at eye-level on one side of a door dividing two rooms, would it refer to the room that the reader was about to leave or the room that the reader was about to enter ?

  13. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 7:31 am

    It does seem to suggest that there is a place which is The Room, which is probably not here, and other places which are not The Room.

    But it is unusual – 'in the castle', 'in the cinema', 'in the theatre' would all be normal and unambiguous. So unless you have a perfect grasp of idiomatic English, it's one that you can only get right by copying, not by extrapolating.

  14. Kristian said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    Yes, it implies that there is a room which is "the room" and other rooms which are not "the room".
    On the other hand, if it refers to all the rooms in a building, it would be more idiomatic to said "inside".

    I once lived with my sister in a small three room apartment which consisted of a larger room with the kitchen + the living room, a bathroom, and a bedroom. We spontaneously started calling the separate bedroom "the Room" (e.g. "Where is the dictionary?" "it is in the Room"), which I found very amusing. Not only because it wasn't the only room, but because I think "room" is a funny word (for me it's one of those words that start to sound funny when they're repeated a few times in a row.)

  15. Ellen K. said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 10:03 am

    Obviously out of context we can't tell which room it refers to. It doesn't seem to me inappropriate to assume a context in which which room isn't a question. And if it's not clear which room, that would be a problem with the Japanese as well, seems to me. (I don't know Japanese, but given the English translation of the Japanese, that seems reasonable to presume.)

  16. Kristian said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 10:27 am

    @Ellen K.
    I don't know Japanese, but Japanese doesn't have definite articles or plurals, so not necessarily. For example, if this sign is posted in a corridor with a row of conference rooms (and applies to all of them), then the English would be wrong or at least odd, but the Japanese might still be right (as I say, I don't know Japanese, so maybe I am wrong).

  17. Josh said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 8:12 pm

    I'm a Japanese-English translator, and the Japanese simply says "Room [locative postposition] [genitive postposition] drinking/eating prohibited." Or in other words, "Eating and drinking prohibited in room(s)". The room in question is not specified in the Japanese, and the same phrasing could be used for a sign within a single room, in a corridor referring to many rooms, or in the manual for a hostel or the like.

    "Eating and drinking are prohibited in the room" sounds grammatical but unidiomatic to my ears, although of course one could conceive of contexts in which it would nonetheless be natural. My instinct is that in a sign prohibiting eating and drinking in the specific room where the sign is hanging would simply say "No food or drink". Possibly with "here" added.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 11:34 pm

    For me (a native speaker of British English, and one raised to embrace the passive rather than to eschew it), the most natural form would be "Eating or drinking in this room is prohibited". "this room" for reasons already discussed, and "or" rather than "and" to prevent cussed-minded pedants from arguing "but I am not eating AND drinking, I am just drinking" (or "just eating").

  19. Levantine said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 4:39 am

    Philip Taylor, again, it isn't a passive construction. Where's Geoff Pullum when you need him?!

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