Chinglish: Lost in Translation

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October 26, 2007

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I’m in China, covering the Women’s World Cup of soccer for CBC Radio. It’s another late night and I’m resorting to room service to quell the rumbling in my tummy. But, scanning the menu, I’m not at all sure about the offerings: stuffed fatty meat pork makes me squirm. Slobbering chicken, lion head or cheese melting in ham parcel…I’m not sold. 

I opt for the complimentary apples on my table – at least I know what I’m getting. 

English mistranslations of food dishes are especially rampant in China. My favourite example comes through the dietitian for the Canadian women’s soccer team.

For obvious reasons, the players were very careful not to be too experimental with food. Chicken is usually a safe bet, but not when the dish is translated as the fragrance explodes the cowboy bone. That could have been too, well, explosive.

Other examples of mistranslations abound. A massage therapist advertises: Relex your tired of bady; a toilet for a disabled person is labeled Deformed man toilet; a slippery road is marked Beware, the slippery are very crafty (but they are!). 

Drinktea is hung on a shop door to mean it’s closed (it also means resting in Mandarin). 

Yes, Chinglish is the weird and wonderful result of an English dictionary colliding with Chinese ideograms that often have multiple meanings. 

These linguistic delicacies may well stay in China, but some experts say Chinglish words are zipping around the globe, even working their way into the English language.

The Global Language Monitor tracks and analyzes trends in Global English. Its president, Harvard-educated linguist, Paul Payack, says the Chinglish phenomenon is helping drive the globalization of the English language, contributing up to 20 percent of Global English words. 

Payack says the rate has increased in the past several years because of China’s rising number of English speakers and economic boom. The surge in Internet users has allowed for the free flow of Chinglish. 

In its most recent annual survey, GLM selected the top Chinglish words: No noising (quiet, please!), airline pulp (food served on a plane), jumping umbrella (hang-glider) and question authority (information booth, interestingly enough).

I decided to take some local words back home with me, stuffing them into my already bloated suitcase:  Financial Supermarket (what better word for one store offering stocks, insurance and real estate services?) and Super Brand Mall (only top-end items, please).

Paul Payack says unless a word is on paper, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t count it, but he insists the real language is what’s spoken and what’s used on the Internet.

“Maybe only five percent of Chinglish words will stick around,” he says, “but that’s a lot.” He expects the language cycle will go into high gear during next year’s Beijing Olympics.

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The rising influence of China is coming not only through Chinese-influenced English, but also through its more famous export: Mandarin, the most widely spoken language on the planet. And beyond China’s borders, tens of millions of people are now picking up scribe and learning to ink the ideograms. 

University of Victoria linguistics professor Hua Lin says “if Mandarin Chinese ever becomes the first choice of a second language to learn, as English has been, there is…less of a chance for these Chinglish expressions to survive or make significant impact.” 

Meanwhile, China’s biggest cities are intent on sweeping the streets clear of unintelligible Chinglish translations.  Beijing has launched a campaign to stamp out bad English in time for its international debut at next year’s Olympics.  

At Shanghai’s Foreign Languages Institute, a bespectacled Zhang Jiani has spearheaded a student initiative to clean up English on menus, in taxis, shops and banks.

She’s an accounting student, but says this is her civic duty: “I think most of the students here have some English skills and I think it’s our responsibility to do something for the city.”  She says they must, if Shanghai is to market itself as a truly international city.

So, once every few weeks, she meets up with a group of students to trek through designated parts of the city. Equipped with electronic dictionaries, they studiously note any suspected mistranslations.They get the correct wording from a professor, then deliver it to the perpetrator who, they hope, makes the correction.

Drinktea may mean closed for business, but this up and coming generation of Chinese will work until the worst of the Chinglish is laid to rest.

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