Just what they DIDN'T want

« previous post | next post »

Despite the FUWA ("good-luck dolls," "friendlies") mascot-goddesses in the "niches" below the sign, the translation is most inauspicious.

world largest sports grand banquet is about to;
will soon;
is on the point of
break out

In this case, it seems to me that the author of the Chinese text is just as culpable for the unfortunate wording as the translator, since — under the circumstances — it would have been wise to avoid BAO4FA1 for the opening of the Olympics. And referring to the Olympics as a "grand banquet" (the glare of the photograph makes it a bit hard to tell for sure, but I am virtually certain that's what's there) is rather strange, although for those with a food fixation it might be conceivable. In this case, the translator wisely took the liberty of improving the Chinese by sensibly rendering it as "meeting." Undoubtedly stymied by the grossly inappropriate BAO4FA1, the translator haplessly converted the adverb JI2JIANG1 as a future passive.

In short, in the study of Chinglish gaffes, we must not automatically jump to the conclusion that they are always due to faulty translation. All too often the original Chinese text itself is poorly composed.

[A tip of the hat to Kenneth Yeh for sending me the above photograph. It was taken by Kukuriku in Zhoushan 舟山, Zhejiang Province 浙江 and posted June 25, 2008 by Oliver Lutz Radtke on "The Chinglish Files by olr".]


  1. Karen said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    We should remember that it's the translator's job to convey the original, not to write it. When the original is awful, so should the translation be.

  2. John Baker said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    Karen, I would think that something like "The world's largest sports celebration is about to erupt!" would have been a better translation, based on the meanings given above.

  3. greg said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    I showed this to a Japanese friend of mine who mentioned that in Japanese, you use the characters for big and explode to mean huge. Not likely what was going on here, but an interesting coincidence.

  4. John Cowan said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    Karen: I almost, but not quite, entirely disagree. Bilingual signs in the New York subway were until recently written in bumbling bureaucratic English (they seem to have improved a lot lately), but the Spanish translation was almost always clear and straight to the point, rather than representing this feature of the original with bumbling bureaucratic Spanish.

  5. hjælmer said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    @John Cowan: Perhaps the Spanish signs were second originals and not translations, or were created by a Spanish-speaking writer who recognized the flaws of the English but had no power to change them.

    I spent some time working as a German to English translator for a software company, and had to continually point out that missing information in my translated manuals was simply not there in the original. I finally convinced them that I could do a better job writing new manuals that broke away from the German wherever necessary.

  6. Doc Rock said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    The World's Greatest Grand Banquet of Physical Culture is About to Explode [onto the Scene]

  7. Karen said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    Well, my statement isn't categoric. (Few things are.) And one could argue that in the case of street signs neither is "the original" but both are representations of the intended meaning.

    But it's hard to defend translations that smooth text that was deliberately rough, or elevate all speakers to a correct standard regardless of their dialect in the original, or even to render an incoherent argument flowing and reasonable-sounding.

  8. dr pepper said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    The world's greatest athletic event is like a flambe for the eyes.

  9. Helena said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    This is the first time I visit your blog.
    This post is really quite funny. It is reminiscent of some of the famous translations featured at "engrish.com".
    I am translator/linguist from Portugal and I have just started my own language blog.
    It's mostly written in Portuguese, but readers are welcome to comment or send messages in English, German, Spanish, French or Russian.
    Unfortunatelly I haven't found many translation blogs in Portuguese. Most of the ones I found are from Brazil, but I would like to find some other Portuguese blogs on language. If anyone out there has a language blog in Portuguese please contact me.
    I would especially like to find blogs on interpreting, since I am about to start studying it.
    Thanks and sorry for using your comment box for this.

  10. nat said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

    @Karen: it is extremely easy to "defend translations that smooth text that was deliberately rough" etc.

    A translator's job is never simply "to convey the original". A translator's job is always to produce a text which performs the function that the person paying for it (or responsible for it, if you prefer) wants it to perform. No more, no less. What the translator should be doing therefore varies depending on the situation at hand. In the case of a novel, it would usually involve "conveying the original", to be sure. In the case of things like this Chinese sign, there are clearly other factors to be considered.

  11. dr pepper said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    I rethought my suggestion.

    Feast your eyes on the world's greatest sporting event– it'll be a blast!

  12. hjælmer said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 5:48 am


    "A translator's job is never simply "to convey the original". A translator's job is always to produce a text which performs the function that the person paying for it (or responsible for it, if you prefer) wants it to perform."


    In my experience, the person requesting the translation often has no idea what the original contains. They may want the translated text to perform a function that it cannot, because the original cannot.

    It gets even trickier in areas like legal translations, where the translation must not only "convey the original," but also do it in a way that respects the distinctions between the environment in which the original was created and the environment in which the translation will be considered.

  13. Robert M Maier said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 8:28 am


    Similarly, people requesting a translation may have exaggerated notions of what the text is doing. In functional texts, the common characteristics of this specific text type as a genre are frequently available as a reference, and may guide the translator's decision about which translation "does the same". (This may have been the case in the NY subway example, where the unknown translator may have felt that clarity was a more important characteristic of the text type "subway sign" in Spanish than in English.)

    But our Chinese sign really appears to be a translation by a non-native speaker of the target language – which is a big no-no right from the start anyway.

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    The comments about New York subway signs remind me of a few interesting cases I've seen where an ad campaign was clearly designed around the Spanish rendering, and only translated into English as an afterthought. The most memorable were some public AIDS-awareness ads from a few years back in which the English versions said "AIDS: It can happen to you", but the Spanish versions "SIDA: Si, Da".

  15. Nick Lamb said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    I would have guessed (without thinking much about it) that translator is a profession. In which case it would have professional ethics which restrict the translator regardless of what they were "paid" to do. Obviously translators have less dramatic ethical responsibilities than surgeons or civil engineers, but it would seem to me that it would not be ethical to create a purported "translation" of a text which would mislead readers as to the content and meaning of the original. For example, perhaps you are asked to translate a religious text, and your knowledge of the source language causes you to think that "son" is the right English word in a bunch of places, but the employer insists that "child" is the word they want used. If the passages affected are religious laws, this is a material change, and the English reader ought to be informed, perhaps with a footnote. To do otherwise is to allow the employer to use your authority (as a translator) to put words into someone else's mouth.

  16. Robert M Maier said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    @Nick Lamb:
    Differences between the individual conceptions of 'ethics' notwithstanding, you are right: paid professionals will follow some sort of professional ethics…
    …paid non-professionals, however, may not have the first clue that such a thing might even exist! And there's a lot of them out there, too.

  17. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    @dr pepper: After the uber-sportsfest you'll feel bloated.

  18. Ardath said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    Doc Rock, how about: "The world's greatest sports extravaganza will blow you away?"

  19. David Starner said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    @Nick Lamb: In most of the cases we're talking about, no one cares about the original text. When I get an unassembled bookcase, I'm going to be annoyed if the manual refers to a type of screwdriver that doesn't exist in the US, even if the original Chinese text specified that screwdriver. Furthermore, I won't be annoyed–and I don't see who has a right to be annoyed–if the translator turns rambling, confusing, inaccurate Chinese into sharp, lucid English that correctly explains how to assemble the bookcase. If you're translating a French popular novel to English, unobtrusively explaining features that the French are familiar with but Americans aren't is going to make a better novel for casual reading, and one more true to the purposes of the original.

    In the case of legal matter, religious or otherwise, of course it shouldn't be casually altered. But a lot of material is designed to be abridged and edited in the original; demanding the translator be faithful when no one else is going to be, or is expected to be, isn't useful.

RSS feed for comments on this post