Clipper Chinglish

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From the person who bought the hair clipper described in this post:

"Card hair, and be careful to get an electric shock" (10/22/20)

They now tell us:

The hair clipper had to be returned. The report we are submitting (which was slightly more fun to write than it will be for them to read) says this:

Flimsy parts, very hard to fit together; utterly unintelligible instruction sheet with gibberish mistranslations from Chinese ("Above the thumb away can be unloaded segment"; "Close the interference"; "Trendy must hear clicking sound can be determined completely"). On the box it says "Trend of the choice" and "Comfortable enjoy". We did not comfortable enjoy: when we finally got a comb fitted to the cutting head, the clipper did not work — it did not cut hair.

A little plastic blade guard was stuck in a wrong position once we managed to get the cutting head fitted back on (it came out unexpectedly when we took a comb attachment off), so the device never cut a single hair. Back into the box.

It's a tragedy how the vast Chinese manufacturing industry is being let down by minor sloppiness. (The old adage talks about "spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar"). In this case the flimsiness and unintuitiveness might have been remedied by clear instructions about exactly how to fit the attachments, but no, it was absolutely hopeless with the tiny sheet of gibberish provided ("1. Select attachment; 2. Press the other side").

This was our second attempt to buy a clipper (my hair is getting shaggy). The earlier attempt brought us a much more expensive high-end German clipper, costing more than three times as much. But the charger cable — almost certainly of Chinese manufacture — failed to fit securely enough into the charger port to stay in, which meant the machine could not be charged. The little plug that had to be inserted into the tiny socket was not quite long enough; it was possible to see the charging light come on if you pressed it in very hard with your thumb, but the moment you relaxed your grip it dropped out. Probably a difference of twenty millimeters or so, but the device was unusable because of that flaw, and back it went to the Amazon locker. (Returns to Amazon are absolutely clickety-click now, with lockers at the 7-Eleven that read your label, open a door of a locker the right size, and you just pop the package in.)

The third clipper, a different make and model, purchased on a Sunday morning, will arrive tomorrow. I would bet the rent money that it will be of Chinese manufacture (and that's not trivial; the rent on the lovely apartment in Alexandria where I'm staying is nearly $4,000 a month). And if the instructions are in grammatical Standard English, then I'll be surprised, and I'll write to you to admit that on this occasion I was wrong.

A couple of hours later, they added:

The way the disasters of unsupervised translation by machine translation users cause actual commercial harm to Chinese industry does need comment.

Some people seem to think we shouldn't laugh at the poor Chinese with their pathetic and ludicrous attempts at writing English. But that treats them as if they were mental defectives who we shouldn't be ridiculing, and that's a truly racist position.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to mock bad cases of Chinglish, precisely because (i) the mockery has nothing to do with being anti-Chinese; (ii) it is patently untrue that Chinese speakers can't be expected to learn enough English to write an instruction sheet; (iii) what they need to do is so obviously feasible and cheap (just pay for the odd hour for a native speaker of English to write or correct or translate the English instructions); and (iv) real and financially damaging harm is being done to Chinese industry — the hopeless unchecked translations that won't tell us how to fit the attachments are every bit as culpable as the recharging plug that won't stay in its socket.

It's not racist to point out that Chinese industry is doing itself real harm by its flagrant and inexcusable failure to ask native speakers to check translated instructions and advertising text.

So so long as there's Chinese and so long as there's English, there will always be Chinglish.

Selected readings

    (a tiny fraction of possible candidates for inclusion)


  1. arthur said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    Don't blame China, blame covid. Demand for home hair trimming equipment is much higher than anyone expected at the beginning of 2020, so prices are up and profits are excellent. Established manufacturers are cutting corners to get more product out, with quality control exacerbated by supply chain disruptions. Manufacturers of products for which there is no demand these days (e.g. theater sound systems) are retooling to make hair trimmers, and they're not slowing down to adequately test the product or the user manuals. They don't expect to stay in the business very long, so they're not concerned about the risk to reputation.

  2. David C. said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 9:42 pm

    If the person’s home is like most American homes, then there are hundreds if not thousands of Chinese-made products. I suspect most of them work just fine. Hardly fair to make such a characterization on the whole manufacturing industry from one example. One has to accept that buying lower-cost items from Amazon will mean products that are not made by big brand names, and which originate from small and medium enterprises in China, therefore lacking some of the sophistication and scrutiny of larger corporations.

    I have purchased some excellent products from Amazon which come with decent enough instructions. Things are getting better over time. Many of them are thoughtfully designed and compete well against overpriced options from the traditional brick and mortar retail stores.

    I am not sure the instructions were that difficult to understand, even though they are ungrammatical. The gist is to pick attachment, slide it on the blades and press. You should hear a click if it is securely attached. To remove the attachment, lift it with your thumb.

  3. Ben said,

    October 26, 2020 @ 9:38 am

    Chinglish in instruction booklets is generally fairly harmless, I would say. A far more insidious example might be the Chinglish in college English classes. Chinese textbooks are generally required to be of local origin, so the people writing the English books are usually fairly proficient native Chinese speakers. Emphasis on *fairly*: they are still filled with reams of strange idioms, basic mistakes and the occasional sexually suggestive vocab word. And this is at the college level! If the instruction booklet translators learned in these classes, its no wonder they make so many errors.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 26, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    It's not obvious to me that hiring skilled bilingual translators for these instruction booklets would be cheap or even feasible. With (I'm guessing) tens of thousands of new products being introduced every year, demand for such services must be fairly high, driving costs up.

    I'm similarly unconvinced that actual harm is being done to Chinese industry. It's an unfortunate fact of capitalism that viable market niches exist for shoddy products at rock-bottom prices. Manufacturers targeting this market segment simply factor a high rate of returns and customer dissatisfaction into their business model. There's no reason to suppose that Chinese manufacturers have not done this sort of cost/benefit analysis.

  5. Jake said,

    October 26, 2020 @ 11:33 am

    I guess if you're spending nearly $48000 / year just on your apartment rent, this is the kind of thing you're reduced to complaining about.

    China's manufacturing industry seems to be doing just fine as is, and really, where else is that person going to go?

    I normally hate to blame the victim, but I'm going to make an exception in this case.

  6. Marion said,

    October 27, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    Don't pick on the Chinese! I bought a Hoover tumble dryer last year and its manual has sentences like 'To switch or cancel off the dryer rotate the knob on off'. Or 'On automatic cycles, each level of intermediate drying, prior to the reaching the selected one, is indicated by flashing the light indicator corresponding to the degree of drying reached.'
    Instruction manuals are just very low priority, it seems, the world over.

  7. Josh Reyer said,

    October 27, 2020 @ 7:38 pm

    Gregory Kusnick said,
    "It's not obvious to me that hiring skilled bilingual translators for these instruction booklets would be cheap or even feasible. With (I'm guessing) tens of thousands of new products being introduced every year, demand for such services must be fairly high, driving costs up."

    I do wish I worked in the industry as you imagine it. Unfortunately, the translation business is becoming rapidly commoditized, particularly in such areas as instruction booklets. To be sure, if a company sells medical devices, and it is vitally important that the end user understand exactly how it is used, then the company needs skilled bilingual translators who further more have experience or expertise in the field of medical devices. And that can be expensive (though not as much as it used to be).

    Nay, for things that are not so critical, post-editing machine translation (PEMT) has made it so the company can use people who are not necessarily a) skilled, nor b) bilingual. They just send it off to a translation farm in India or Dubai, who then sends out offers to a bunch of freelance "translators" who either live in a country with a low standard of living, or are translating as a hobby for some supplemental income. They neither need to be native speakers nor especially skilled in the foreign language. In any case, the company offers these translators/editors bottom-dollar rates to "check" the machine translation. Not even low end for the market; they undercut the professional market completely.

    So although it's actually quite feasible for a company to get serviceable English (not perfect, not even good, just serviceable) for non-critical content at low cost, nevertheless many companies, such as the one in question, eschew even that level of diligence and just put out raw machine-translated text.

  8. Yerushalmi said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 4:37 am

    China's manufacturing industry seems to be doing just fine as is, and really, where else is that person going to go?

    I am now in my eighth month of boycotting anything made in China (for moral reasons, not for quality-of-product reasons). I have only made occasional slip-ups: a single battery, a single box of sandwich bags, and a half-dozen cans of stuffed grape leaves.

    But overall it is both easier and more difficult than one would expect. It requires an investment of time more than of money – but since there is an attended improvement in product quality, you get both time and money back by not having to buy it again.

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