May 30, 2006

A Less Grand Chinglish

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

(Signs in Photographs Taken by My Student Carley Williams during Her Travels in China)

For each item I give the Chinglish sign, identification of the site where it occurred [in double parentheses ((xxx))], pinyin transcription, literal word-for-word translation, and then an idiomatic English translation; sometimes I omit the latter when the meaning of the word-for-word translation is sufficiently clear.


((at a Taishan [Mt. Tai] cable car entrance))

from here enter station board car

"Enter the station here and board the car."


((on a banner held by a guide))

Heaven-made Travel

3. The stairs and Pu Jiang Hotel of the carving arm-rest is like the long history

((on a wall next to a staircase in a hotel))

carved handrail 's stairs and north-river 's history equally old/long

"This staircase with carved banister has a history as old as that of the Pujiang Hotel."

4. My beauty comes from your painstaking care and attention

((at a scenic vista))

my beauty comes from your spirit protection

"The beauty of these natural surroundings depends upon your conscientious care."

5. Those who suffer from high blood pressure, mental disease, horrifying of highness and liquor heads are refused.

((notice at the entrance to a ride in an entertainment park))

   afflicted have heart disease,  high blood pressure, mental illness,  vertigo

   JI2 XU4JIU3ZHE3              XIE4JUE2 CHENG2ZUO4
and those who are inebriated decline ride

"Those who suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, mental illness, or vertigo, and those who are drunk are not permitted to ride."

The next sign is in a class of its own. It comes from a photograph taken by another of my students named Jeisun Wen. Jeisun encountered this sign in a restaurant that he went to with his girlfriend. Neither of them could figure out what the sign was instructing them to do. I've shown this sign to scores of people but nobody can understand what it means. Because of my long experience in reading ancient Chinese manuscripts, I was able to decipher this most mystifying Chinglish sign within a couple of minutes.


(written all in capital letters just that way)

This sign is located at the corner of a panel in the center of which is found a tray labled "CANDIED FRUIT". The corresponding Chinese text for "CANDIED FRUIT" is MI4JIAN4 LING2SHI2, which does indeed mean "candied / preserved [lit., honey] fruit snacks", so there's no real problem there, except that it's a bit odd to say "candied fruit snacks", since MI4JIAN4 traditionally would have been used by itself to signify a type of snack, and there is no need to specify MI4JIAN4 as LING2SHI2.

Now, on to the solution of the difficult part. The corresponding Chinese text for "FUCK TO FRY" is GAN1CHAO3,lit., "dry fry," which doesn't help us to unravel the "FUCK TO FRY" knot. I believe what happened is that a Chinese person asked an English speaker what to write below the GAN1CHAO3 sign that would more or less equal it. The English speaker must have told them to write PUSH TO FRY, i.e., push a button at the corner of the table to heat up the MI4JIAN4 on the tray. Unfortunately, when the Chinese sign painter did the lettering for PUSH TO FRY, P morphed into F, S morphed into C, and H morphed into K (such things can happen when one's handwriting is not perfectly clear!), and the rest is history, immortalized in this eternally perplexing instruction: FUCK TO FRY.

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

[Comment by myl: I never thought I would be in a position to amend Prof. Mair's Chinese philology, even indirectly! In an earlier Language Log post by Ben Zimmer, "Engrish explained", you'll find a related puzzle, the scanned menu item

taken from a blog post by Jon Rahoi, an American living in China. One commenter accused Rahoi of photoshopping it; but "an anonymous professor of China studies" rescued Rahoi by offering the following explanation, reproduced below:

Take #1313, "Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk." It should read "Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu." However, the mangled version above is not as mangled as it seems: it's a literal word-by-word translation, with some cases where the translator chose the wrong one of two meanings of a word.

First two characters: "ma la" meaning hot and spicy, but literally "numbingly spicy" -- it means a kind of Sichuan spice that mixes chilies with Sichuan peppercorn or prickly ash. The latter tends to numb the mouth. "Benumbed hot" is a decent, if ungrammatical, literal translation.

Next two: "jiu cai," the top greens of a fragrant-flowering garlic. There's no good English translation, so "vegetables" is just fine.

Next one: "chao," meaning stir-fried, quite reasonably rendered as "fries" (should be "fried," but that's a distinction English makes and Chinese doesn't).

Finally: "gan si" meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as "dry silk." The problem here is that the word "gan" means both "to dry" and "to do," and the latter meaning has come to mean "to fuck." Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China means people choose the vulgar translation way too often, on the grounds that it's colloquial. Last summer I was in a spiffy modern supermarket in Taiyuan whose dried-foods aisle was helpfully labeled "Assorted Fuck." The word "si" meaning "silk floss" is used in cooking to refer to anything that's been julienned -- very thin pommes frites are sold as "potato silk," for instance. The fact that it's tofu is just understood (sheets of dried tofu shredded into julienne) -- if it were dried anything else it would say so.

I believe that this explanation applies to "FUCK TO FRY" as well, and is simpler than the letter-substitution theory.

Also see "A grander Chinglish", "Regale in Basilica"; and from the other side, "Semen, green rice and the rate of internet decay" ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 30, 2006 10:39 AM