[lg policy] Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 3 15:11:01 UTC 2010

May 2, 2010
Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish

SHANGHAI — For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life
in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are
machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of
local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,”
“monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher
known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.” Those who have had a bit too much
monolithic tree mushroom stem squid could find themselves requiring
roomier attire: extra-large sizes sometimes come in “fatso” or “lard
bucket” categories. These and other fashions can be had at the
clothing chain known as Scat.

Go ahead and snicker, although by last Saturday’s opening of the Expo
2010 in Shanghai, drawing more than 70 million visitors over its
six-month run, these and other uniquely Chinese maladaptations of the
English language were supposed to have been largely excised. Well,
that at least is what the Shanghai Commission for the Management of
Language Use has been trying to accomplish during the past two years.
Fortified by an army of 600 volunteers and a politburo of adroit
English speakers, the commission has fixed more than 10,000 public
signs (farewell “Teliot” and “urine district”), rewritten
English-language historical placards and helped hundreds of
restaurants recast offerings.

The campaign is partly modeled on Beijing’s herculean effort to clean
up English signage for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which led to the
replacement of 400,000 street signs, 1,300 restaurant menus and such
exemplars of impropriety as the Dongda Anus Hospital — now known as
the Dongda Proctology Hospital. Gone, too, is Racist Park, a cultural
attraction that has since been rechristened Minorities Park. “The
purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing,” said Zhao
Huimin, the former Chinese ambassador to the United States who, as
director general of the capital’s Foreign Affairs Office, has been
leading the fight for linguistic standardization and sobriety.

But while the war on mangled English may be considered a signature
achievement of government officials, aficionados of what is known as
Chinglish are wringing their hands in despair. Oliver Lutz Radtke, a
former German radio reporter who may well be the world’s foremost
authority on Chinglish, said he believed that China should embrace the
fanciful melding of English and Chinese as the hallmark of a dynamic,
living language. As he sees it, Chinglish is an endangered species
that deserves preservation. “If you standardize all these signs, you
not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the
park but you lose a window into the Chinese mind,” said Mr. Radtke,
who is the author of a pair of picture books that feature
giggle-worthy Chinglish signs in their natural habitat.

Lest anyone think it is all about laughs, Mr. Radtke is currently
pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinglish at the University of
Heidelberg. Still, the enemies of Chinglish say the laughter it
elicits is humiliating. Wang Xiaoming, an English scholar at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, painfully recalls the guffaws that
erupted among her foreign-born colleagues as they flipped through a
photographic collection of poorly written signs. “They didn’t mean to
insult me but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable,” said Ms. Wang,
who has since become one of Beijing’s leading Chinglish slayers. Those
who study the roots of Chinglish say many examples can be traced to
laziness and a flawed but wildly popular translation software. Victor
H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania,
said the computerized dictionary, Jingshan Ciba, had led to sexually
oriented vulgarities identifying dried produce in Chinese supermarkets
and the regrettable “fried enema” menu selection that should have been
rendered as “fried sausage.”

Although improved translation software and a growing zeal for
grammatically unassailable English has slowed the output of new
Chinglishisms, Mr. Mair said he still received about five new examples
a day from people who knew he was good at deciphering what went wrong.
“If someone would pay me to do it, I’d spend my life studying these
things,” he said. Among those getting paid to wrestle with Chinglish
is Jeffrey Yao, an English translator and teacher at the Graduate
Institute of Interpretation and Translation in Shanghai who is leading
the sign exorcism. But even as he eradicates the most egregious
examples by government fiat — businesses dare not ignore the
commission’s suggested fixes — he has mixed feelings, noting that
although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they
can be refreshingly lyrical. “Some of it tends to be expressive, even
elegant,” he said, shuffling through an online catalog of signs that
were submitted by the volunteers who prowled Shanghai with digital
cameras. “They provide a window into how we Chinese think about

He offered the following example: While park signs in the West exhort
people to “Keep Off the Grass,” Chinese versions tend to
anthropomorphize nature as a way to gently engage the stomping masses.
Hence, such admonishments as “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please
Don’t Disturb It” or “Don’t Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain.”  Mr. Yao
read off the Chinese equivalents as if savoring a Shakespearean
sonnet. “How lovely,” he said with a sigh. He pointed out that this
linguistic mentality helped create such expressions as “long time no
see,” a word-for-word translation of a Chinese expression that became
a mainstay of spoken English. But Mr. Yao, who spent nearly two
decades working as a translator in Canada, has his limits. He showed a
sign from a park designed to provide visitors with the rules for
entry, which include prohibitions on washing, “scavenging,” clothes
drying and public defecation, all of it rendered in unintelligible —
and in the case of the last item — rather salty English. The sign
ended with this humdinger: “Because if the tourist does not obey the
staff to manage or contrary holds, Does, all consequences are proud.”

Even though he had had the sign corrected recently, Mr. Yao could not
help but shake his head in disgust at the memory. And he was irritated
to find that a raft of troublesome sign verbiage had slipped past the
commission as the expo approached, including a cafeteria sign that
read, “The tableware reclaims a place.” (Translation: drop off dirty
dishes here.)  “Some Chinglish expressions are nice, but we are not
translating literature here,” he said. “I want to see people nodding
that they understand the message on these signs. I don’t want to see
them laughing.”

Li Bibo contributed research.

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