Chinglish is a 2011 play written by David Henry Wang. In it, an American businessman arrives in China with the hope of scoring a contract for his firm. His business? Sign-making. And it sounds like a good business to be in. If you’ve ever travelled to China, you’ve seen them: signs in English that are direct or mistranslations from Chinese. That’s where the name comes from. Chinese-English.
But by 2011 the Chinese government had already spent several years trying to clean-up Chinglish signs. China’s capital city actually started the process for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when they replaced the infamous “Racist Park” with the more palatable “Ethnic Minority Park.”
The Beijing Tourism Bureau even had a hotline where people could call when they saw bad English signs. Shanghai did the same thing in preparation for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
An official guide for those who want to translate Chinese to English
In recent months, the Chinese government has ramped up this cleaning-up effort. While most people consider Chinglish signs funny or just confusing, the government disagrees. They want to present China’s best profile internationally, and they won’t accept linguistic approximations that other people can make fun of.
This December, the New National Standard on Use of English will come into effect. A product of the Ministry of Education, the State Language Commission, and the Standardisation Administration of China, this guide includes a dozen sections with over 3,500 translations of common expressions.
The guide covers a dozen areas from hospitality and tourism, of course, but also finance, education, or even transportation. Translators and business people can now check what the official translations for words and expressions in their fields are.
Chinese soft power is linked to good English translations
Tian Shihong, the director of the Standardisation Administration, said at a press conference: “By developing and implementing this language standard, we want to boost our cultural soft power and international image.”
That is why the policy includes guidelines on proper grammar and a ban on derogatory terms. Basically, translations that have a negative impact on China’s image might end up in the bin. According to Beijing tour guide Laura Zhao: “Chinese people are good at following rules” and “when the government gives you a list of how things should be, everything becomes easier.”
The Chinese government believes incorrect translations are a hindrance to the development of a multicultural society. Cleaning up their image, they believe, starts with cleaning up their English translations.
The end of Chinglish?
The Chinese government may view Chinglish as an abomination, but comments from people online suggest it’s not that bad. Rather than something to point and laugh at, many people consider these incorrect translations as part of China’s authenticity and charm. We could argue that it’s even helping Chinese soft power.
Because we are a translation agency, we appreciate the Chinese government agencies’ effort to remove Chinglish from China. But there is hope for enthusiasts of it:
- You’d be hard pressed to find two languages as far apart as Chinese and English.That leaves plenty of room for further translation mishaps.
- As mentioned earlier: the previous efforts of Beijing and Shanghai did not seem to have a very significant impact on the mom-and-pop shops and restaurant menus. Sure, official translations in public buildings and big companies is great, but maybe these smaller stores will continue doing just fine with their signs in “approximate” English.
What is your take on English translations of Chinese signs? Harmless fun or deeper societal issue?