A year before the Beijing Olympics an article in China Daily, China’s English language newspaper, described a war in Beijing against “baffling English translations” sometimes referred to as “Chinglish.” Some of them are, indeed, amusing to monolingual English speakers or possibly to those fluent in both English and Chinese. For example, one quoted in the article, translates a sign warning about a slippery walkway as “Slip carefully.”

Some English speakers have lamented that corrections are being made. One American living in Shanghai said they “take away one of the joys of China.” The signs, however, are often an embarrassment to Chinese fluent in English. A Chinese foreign language consultant said, “We don’t want anyone laughing at us.” He emphasized that correction of the signs was to help foreigners. The English certainly wasn’t meant to benefit Chinese.

Fourth grade writing practice

The longer I spend shuttling back and forth between China and the United States the more I become aware of the unintentional patronizing attitude we Americans have toward portions of Chinese life and toward the difficulties some Chinese have in mastering English even though few American non-Chinese adults try to come to grips with the Chinese language.

It’s so easy to be smug. I found myself smiling recently as I stepped into the shower in a rural hotel and saw a “Slip carefully” warning sign. Even with all my knowledge of the differences between the two languages my instant reaction was amusement at the error.

How easy it is to say — Why didn’t that person spell the word correctly? Why don’t those students get ‘he’ or ’she’ correct? They never use the right verb tense. I can’t understand that person’s accent. Why don’t they speak English better so we can understand it?

Our American impatience and the fact that English has become so widespread internationally have handed a major disadvantage to monolingual English-speakers.

More and more we assume that everyone in the world should speak English. When hotel housekeepers in Beijing or Shanghai can only carry-on simple (and unhelpful) dialogues in English about a missing water bottle or the need for more towels, we become impatient. And when we see signs in English that are not quite right, we are inclined to laugh and point without thinking.

But if we really thought about it, we’d realize these signs, are often written by people who studied English from teachers who have never had the opportunity to talk with a native English speaker. They did their best, but they were only able to achieve 70 or 80 percent perfection, and we Americans expect 98 percent perfection or better. Anything less is quaint or annoying.

The match between English and Chinese is limited in the extreme. I’m amazed when I hear interpreters moving back and forth between the two languages. I wonder how they do it and what processes are flying through their brains.

I have had the advantage to understand this a little. I studied Spanish for 10 years, and then began traveling to China regularly. Spanish certainly didn’t help me in China, and at that point I had no time in my life to learn another language. After a few years, I found an available month to study Chinese in Nanjing. Not enough time to learn much, but I did learn to pronounce the tones. It was also long enough to realize how startlingly different Chinese and English are. A literal translation from English to Chinese or Chinese to English makes no sense. None. There are no tenses in Chinese; time is indicated through the context of the sentence. There are no pronouns. Innuendo is often carried in the visual image of the character, and there is almost no way to translate that portion of the language into English.

What makes me happy or sad

Learning written Chinese is a complicated adventure for Westerners. One little stroke of a character out of place or made wrong can completely change the meaning of the character. Foreigners have to practice long, long hours to come anywhere near being able to write in a rudimentary fashion. On the other hand, Chinese have to struggle mightily with English language structure, with complex verb tenses, and the use of ‘he’ and ’she’ and where on earth English places ‘the’ and ‘a’ and where they don’t.

So when we Westerners come across errors and mis-translations, it would be useful to ask ourselves how perfectly we would be able to write or say the equivalent Chinese. Humility is hard to learn, but sometimes worth it.

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