Transliterations aplenty

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From Simon Cartoon:

Here's something I just saw at a local bakery in Berkeley, CA.

Simon explains:

We have English, Spanish, and then French in the last position, no issues there.

3rd position is Mandarin Chinese via pinyin: Who is this for? What is the population of people uncomfortable reading in English, but comfortable reading in pinyin? And wouldn't this exclude non-Mandarin speakers + Taiwanese (as characters wouldn't?) Also, some apparent errors….shouldn't 免提 be together, rather than mian3 ti2 as separate words?

4th position is transliterated Arabic. An arabic speaking friend (from Bahrain) told me that it is 'almost unreadable'. Again, who is this for?

Finally, transliterated Japanese in 5th position. Again, to what audience is this directed?

Is the path to hell paved with well-intentioned transliterations?

Simon poses lots of tough questions.  Who can give thoughtful answers to a few of them?

Selected readings


  1. Cervantes said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 12:08 pm

    I presume the problem is they didn't have the technical means to generate non-Latin characters. Well intentioned, I suppose.

  2. Eddie said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 1:02 pm

    It looks like the text seems to be directly translated using Google Translate (and the romanization is exactly what Google provides). When I pasted the original text into Google Translate, it gave the exact same romanization. The translation itself is pretty bad; it's mostly a bunch of word replacements and some rearrangement of the word order.

    From my experience, it seems like Google internally processes CJK characters using some romanization and then matches the output with a dictionary. That might explain the strange romanization.

    Google Translate:
    友情提示本店更喜歡刷卡和免提支付。 我們在每筆交易中都處理食品,並且每次接觸現金或客戶的個人物品時都必須進行消毒,如果我們不得不在輪班中這樣做太多次,這會減慢我們的速度並刺激我們的皮膚。
    Yǒuqíng tíshì běndiàn gèng xǐhuān shuākǎ hé miǎn tí zhīfù. Wǒmen zài měi bǐ jiāoyì zhōng dōu chǔlǐ shípǐn, bìngqiě měi cì jiēchù xiànjīn huò kèhù de gèrén wùpǐn shí dōu bìxū jìnxíng xiāodú, rúguǒ wǒmen bùdé bùzài lúnbān zhōng zhèyàng zuò tài duō cì, zhèhuì jiǎn màn wǒmen de sùdù bìng cìjī wǒmen de pífū.

  3. Thomas Rees said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 3:13 pm

    The Spanish is weird Google-speak, too. “Hands-free payment” is “pago sin contacto” not “manos libres”. However, “un manos libres” is a hands-free phone!

  4. Charles in Toronto said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 5:29 pm

    It could simply be that whoever copy-pasted this stuff from Google Translate went and naively copied the transliteration instead of the actual characters for the target language.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 6:09 pm

    What audiences are [some of the] translations aimed at, when those who can read them can probably understand the English?

    Perhaps the proprietors understood this, but wanted to avoid disrespect by appearing to ignore the needs of their Chinese, Arabic and Japanese customers while catering to those whose mother tongues are French or Spanish.

    Since I have no familiarity with the cultural etiquettes of Berkeley (or anywhere else in North America), would this be likely?

  6. Joe said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 8:21 pm

    Is there a name for the pattern of starting a sentence by labeling what emotional category of sentence it is? A sci-fi comedy robot would be the extreme example: "Enthusiastic greeting: It's good to see you again! Perfunctory rhetorical question: How are you feeling today? Friendly reminder: You have a dental appointment this afternoon."

    "Friendly reminder that" is such an affected genteelism that I suspect it's not even familiar everywhere English is spoken, much less that it translates word-for-word to all of these languages.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 9:12 pm

    Wēnxīn tíshì 溫馨提示 ("Gentle Reminder") is common on Chinese signs, but I suspect that they may have gotten it from elsewhere.

    See "Please, please, please, please, please" (4/8/23)

  8. RP said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 1:14 am

    @Thomas Rees The same for French, it should be 'paiement sans contact'. Worse, 'paiement mains libres' ('Hands free') is used for something else. This is the new technology where a card is set up for payment via a phone app, detected via Bluetooth and payments are made without any action on the part of the shopper.

    I would also note this is distinctly Quebecois French but perhaps that is fair enough.

    My main comment would be 'why so wordy'? People are generally not going to read so much, especially is they have to find a language they understand. A simple 'We prefer Contactless Payments' would be more effective, surely.

  9. Cervantes said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    Also, they have germ paranoia.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 8:32 am

    Thomas Rees wrote:

    “Hands-free payment” is “pago sin contacto” not “manos libres”.

    Are you sure? Certainly "pago sin contacto" is the correct translation for contactless payment (i.e. reading card details using NFC), but that's not hands-free. "Hands-free payment" seems to mean payment by facial recognition, and a direct translation of that term ("pago por reconocimiento facial") is in use in the Spanish-speaking world.

    Incidentally, I can find usage of compra con manos libres to refer to paying for your items in the shop and having them delivered: your hands are free in the sense that you're not carrying the bags home.

  11. Terry K. said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 4:25 pm

    "Hands-free payment" isn't typical in English either. Although there really isn't an established phrase, that I know of, to say "payment where the employees don't have to touch anything", which seems to be the idea. It doesn't matter to the employees here whether the customer swipes, inserts, or hovers (or taps) their card. (Or other possibilities if those are options.) The point would seem to be "use a card, and use a method that doesn't involve handing that card to us".

  12. Terry K. said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 4:38 pm

    Actually, it occurs to me, calling it "hands-free" payment is likely a mistake of looking at it from their point of view (employee not using their hands in the payment process) rather than the customer's point of view (customer does use their hands).

    "Hands-free payment" seems to mean payment by facial recognition, and a direct translation of that term ("pago por reconocimiento facial") is in use in the Spanish-speaking world.

    Given that facial recognition payment is not much of a thing yet, and that payment systems that are common do the job of keeping the employees from touching anything just fine, that seems unlikely.

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 6:23 pm

    @Terry Hunt
    There a number of reasons for multilingual signs in addition to catering for people who may not know the dominant or official language.
    One is to acknowledge an indigenous language, out of respect or to satisfy its speakers (even if they understand the majority language perfectly). In this case there isn’t an indigenous language in the list, even though Spanish arrived in California before England. Another is to welcome tourists, even if most do read English. Or to be inclusive, acknowledging the presence of diverse communities, which is probably the case here. Although a translation with errors is not fully respectful, and if the translation is official policy, it’s halfway to being insulting.
    On the other hand, to object to multilingual signs in a bilingual country on the grounds “they all speak English”, is disrespectful to the indigenous language, and its speakers.

  14. Nobody Important said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 5:09 am

    Hire a cashier and spare your customers from this nonsense.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 7:23 am

    Maybe it’s telling that the French calls it (correctly) a boulangerie, where the English and Spanish just have the generic “shop”; I don’t know about the other languages.

  16. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    "even though Spanish arrived in California before England" — has Spanish arrived in England ? I thought that Drake et al were pretty successful at keeping it out …

  17. Laura Morland said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 1:13 pm

    As someone who *does* understand the "cultural etiquettes of Berkeley," I find the owner's decision to use Google Translate (as was clearly done for the French, the only other language in which I am competent), and even worse, *transliterations* for Mandarin, Arabic, and Japanese, surprising and atypical.

    Berkeley is still home to a number of print shops: it would not have been difficult for the owner to find one capable of printing his sign using the alphabets/characters proper to each language.

    More to the point, Berkeley has at least a few thousand native speakers of all these major world languages. If the owner cared enough to print a sign in six languages, he could have easily run a proof by a native speaker of each.

    [On the other hand, not even the major museums of Paris seem to care enough to hire a native speaker to translate the text of their exhibitions; in their case, they don't seem to be using GT but rather, some French person who (mistakenly) believes they are capable of producing faultless English. (Sigh.) ]

  18. Laura Morland said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 3:06 pm

    @VHM: Is it possible to ask Simon Cartoon for the name of the Berkeley bakery, or (if he doesn't want to name it), at least the name of the street it's on? Merci !

  19. January First-of-May said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 3:38 pm

    Is there a name for the pattern of starting a sentence by labeling what emotional category of sentence it is?

    IIRC it's sometimes lumped together with tone tags, which are normally more compressed and at the end; offhand I can't think of a name for this specific pattern. It does feel like a robotic kind of turn of speech (though I've also seen this being associated with the not-very-robotic elcor from Mass Effect).
    AFAIK autistic people often talk like that (online), because it makes the emotions more obvious. I've used that pattern myself sometimes.

  20. Sanchuan said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 10:20 am

    I am more taken by their saying
    "we are handling food every transaction"
    "we are handling food AT every transaction"

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