In an attempt to root out confusing if not embarrassing “Chinglish” mistranslations, the Chinese government has published a guide to prevent businesses and organizations from getting lost in translation.
The Ministry of Education, the State Language Commission, and the Standardization Administration on Tuesday jointly introduced new national standards on the use of English. The document specifies the correct Chinese-to-English translations for certain words and phrases, covering 13 sectors ranging from finance and transportation to education, tourism, and hospitality.
“Chinglish,” often the result of translations that are too literal or use the wrong meaning of a specific Chinese character, have at times been a source of amusement in the West. Photos of signs that say “Execution in Progress” or “Be Careful to Hit Your Head” — “Under Construction” and “Mind Your Head,” respectively — have proved to be share-worthy social media fodder.
But the standards aim to get rid of these mistakes, long a source of embarrassment for Chinese officials. “Through developing and implementing this language standard, we want to boost our cultural soft power and international image,” Tian Shihong, director of the Standardization Administration, said during a press conference on Tuesday.
Besides correcting common mistakes, the reference document prohibits the use of discriminatory language and words that would harm public interest or damage China’s relations with the international community. The guidelines will go into effect on Dec. 1, 2017, but it is unclear whether they will be enforced as compulsory.
According to Li Wenzhong, a professor of linguistics at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the new guidelines highlight the difference between what he calls “Chinese-style English” and “Chinese English.” While the latter encompasses the use of cultural references and ideas that have become a part of the lexicon, Chinese-style English — a result of literal translation — is something that is usually ridiculed and should be policed, he told Sixth Tone.
“When terms are used widely enough, they are gradually accepted,” Li said. “The [new] standards regulate language with inaccurate connotations, and such regulations facilitate international communication and exchange.”
While this is the first time a national translation guideline has been introduced in China, authorities have repeatedly tried to get rid of linguistic faux pas, especially in the run-up to international events. Before the 2010 World Expo, Shanghai’s Commission for the Management of Language Use deployed an army of volunteers to correct signs — including some labeling public toilets as “urine districts” — to burnish the city’s reputation for being cosmopolitan and foreigner-friendly. And ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing actively cleaned up any signs — including one identifying a public space as “Racist Park” — that could potentially offend its international guests.
But not everybody agrees that “Chinglish” should be erased entirely.
Oliver Radtke is the sinologist behind the blog Chinglish Museum, which chronicles “the results of an English dictionary meeting Chinese grammar.” He told Sixth Tone that these standardized translations could remove the color, flavor, and nuance of the language that makes learning and encountering a foreign linguistic landscape so “fascinating and enriching.”
“I am not arguing against standardizing public signs in hospitals or train stations; I am arguing for allowing and cherishing a creative zone of imperfect linguistic encounters that offers a glimpse into very different cultures,” Radtke said. “I would like to encourage the administration to confidently curate more China-flavored translations rather than sticking to U.S. habits.”
Additional reporting: Guo Quanzhi; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Instructions on a yellow line at a railway station are mistranslated as ‘Please wait outside a noodle,’ Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Dec. 13, 2014. Yu Zhuo/VCG)