April 18, 2007

Racist Park

I am not sure what would win a competition for funniest attempted translation of Chinese into English ever to appear on a sign or other public printed document; as modern Beijing prepares for the Olympics and tries to fix some of the most embarrassing items, "Dongda Anus Hospital", a favorite photo op for tourists, looks like a relatively mild example (it is replaced now by one saying "Dondga Proctology Hospital"). There are menus featuring "sexually inexperienced chicken" (better translation: "pullet"). But I think my favorite among the cases mentioned in this article from yesterday's New York Times is probably the park dedicated to the theme of providing education about China's rich array of ethnic minority populations. The signs (still, so Tom McGrenery tells me) say: "Racist Park".

Hat tip: John Wadsworth.

Let me add that Tom McGrenery also says this:

Good grief. Can we please stop the "hahaha, look at the Chinese, their English isn't very good, it it?" line of comedy web postings. This is the juvenile sort of thing one expects from tourists' LiveJournals, not Language Log. What's next, photos of menus with badly translated names of dishes?

A somewhat more fruitful line of inquiry might be why China's various institutions don't get in proper advice on what constitutes English people won't laugh at. Every time you set off in a taxi in Beijing, a little voice greets you with "welcome to take Beijing taxi". There's a problem at the heart of all translation when you don't speak the language yourself in that at some point you just have to trust someone when they say "yeah, I speak Tagalog" (for example) and this is pretty emblematic of it.

It works the other way round too. Back in the 70s, the Australian navy managed to offend the Chinese delegation at a function by stupidly giving their personnel name tags in full-form characters rather than simplified - the kind of faux pas that anyone acquainted with Chinese would spot.

For what it's worth, the signs still say "racist park" in Beijing. But I'm slightly disappointed by the orientalism at work in your post, although I realise the intent was not to be patronising. I'm just not convinced that "comical" translations, without looking at how they happen, are really worth the time.

Don't think it didn't cross my mind that there is an awful lot of laughing at the Chinese for the strange mistranslations associated with the term "Chinglish". And I wondered whether I should even deign to pass on a pointer to the Times article. But then I thought, for heaven's sake, these are just mistranslations that happen to be funny. When we chuckle at them, we are not implying that the Chinese are dumb (the language is very different from English, and if they translate from it poorly, the plain fact is that I couldn't translate from it at all, so they're infinitely smarter than me in this domain).

And when we comment on Chinglish we're not implying (as his reference to "Orientalism" seems to suggest) that there is something essentially Chinese about mangling translations — I saw a hilarious, disastrously bad translation from Italian in front of the cathedral in Turin, and I regret I didn't have a camera to take a picture of it. And of course I have mocked right here on Language Log a wonderfully goofy translation from Spanish ("Memories of qualities: armed structure and crystals"), for which I hope I won't get damned as an anti-Hispanite.

Sure, the post above is trivial if considered as a comment about the Chinese language or translation or anything else. But we're not always in grim-jawed serious mode here at Language Log Plaza. Sometimes we see funny stuff and we just relax and kick back and laugh a little. I'm sorry that Tom McGrenery is a bit tired of hearing giggling in the back row from people who couldn't translate a single character of Chinese to save their sorry asses. But there we are, I'm not always profound or appropriately respectful of other languages and cultures; sometimes, with all due respect and affection for the linguistic brotherhood of man, I just sit back and giggle. Try to forgive me, OK?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 18, 2007 01:23 PM