Chinglish: Lost In Translation

We’ve discovered yet another humorous book many of our readers may want to add to their collections. It’s called Chinglish: Lost in Translation (Gibbs Smith), a hysterical photo book loaded with images of so-called Chinglish signs. The author, Oliver Lutz Radtke traveled the provinces of China capturing images of Chinglish signs, bill boards, placards, menus, and documents.

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Chinglish, for the uninitiated, is an English language slang term, used to describe English interspersed with Chinese language errors common to those Chinese speaking persons who have yet to master English. According to Radtke, “Chinglish is very often funny because of the sometimes scarily direct nature of the new meaning produced by the translation. A ‘deformed man toilet’ in Shanghai or an “anus hospital” is funny because it instantly destroys linguistic euphemisms we Westerners have carefully built up when talking about sensitive topics. Chinglish annihilates these conventions right away. Chinglish is right in your face.”

A thoughtfully written forward by Susian Stahle, a Chinese language researchers at Heidleberg University, Institute of Chines Studies, helps explain the reasons why Chinglish exists.

We’re glad Radtke took the time to document these images. They may not be around for long, if the Chinese government has anything to say about it. In preparation for the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has harnessed a huge workforce whose job it is to erradicate Chinglish from the capital, and eventually, from all of China.

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2 Responses to “Chinglish: Lost In Translation”

  1. Janet Swisher November 28, 2007 at 7:00 pm #

    Examples of Chinese-to-English translation-by-dictionary-lookup are an occasional topic over at the Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/), where they are usually accompanied by interesting analyses of the original phrase and how the mistranslation occurred. For example, how “disposable cup” became “a time sex thing”:  http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004808.html

    To tie this vaguely back to technical communication, a few years ago, I contracted at a multinational company, essentially editing documents written in English by engineers in Hong Kong and mainland China, into colloquial English. Without direct access to the hardware products the engineers were designing, there was little else the technical “writers” were allowed to do. The Chinese engineers didn’t make the kinds of goofball vocabulary mistakes that Radtke’s book highlights, though they had problems with some idioms. What we referred to as “Chinglish” was the particular pattern of syntax that native Chinese speakers tend to produce in English. It is mostly grammatical, but somehow even more mind-numbing than prose produced by English-speaking engineers.

  2. Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler November 29, 2007 at 8:09 am #

    Janet:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I know many of our readers are involved in translation activities—and many more are likely to be impacted as we move to a more global marketplace.

    If you’re ever interested in writing an article about translation issues, please let us know.

    Scott