‘Chinglish’ lessons needed for 2008 Summer Olympics

By Sujay Kumar

“The older, the children, the deformities, the patients and the pregnant women should take the escalator with his guardian together.”

In other words, “Warning: Be careful on escalators.” At least, that’s what it means in Beijing.

Known as Chinglish, this mash-up of mistranslated phrases and bad syntax is caused by word-to-word translations from Chinese to English. Chinese characters often express concepts indirectly and have multiple interpretations, making translation into English very difficult.

While Chinglish is taking Beijing by storm, not everyone is excited by its spread. Last week, the organizers of the 2008 Bejing Summer Olympics and local authorities vowed to systematically remove Chinglish from all city signs.

It’s understandable that a city that has spent 40 billion dollars in preparation for the Olympics does not want to embarrass itself or confuse the many foreign visitors expected for the games.

A billboard in Beijing reads “Shangri-La is in you mind, but your buffalo is not.” I have no idea what that means. Ethnic Minorities Park (real name) was shown on street signs as “Racist Park.” There’s not much more that can be said about that one.

The campaign to ban Chinglish involves distributing “standardized” English signs and having the public serve as watchdogs. A Web site and a hotline for residents to report errors is available, and Beijing’s newspaper Legal Mirror had a section reserved for “mistake of the day” photographs.

Interestingly, the campaign to clean up Beijing’s English is not only limited to confusing signs. Taxi drivers who can’t speak English are also being targeted. To keep their license, Beijing cabbies must pass an English exam. Liu Yang, the head of the “Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program” said that many drivers now speak English, but the amount of “no English” speakers is still not up to standards. Yang also said that one third of the 15 million people in Beijing speak English, although a large portion of the figure speak “low level” English.

This is a truly revolutionary movement to eliminate “bad” English from the world.

Waiting fast not reader go. (Wait, not so fast)

It seems that Beijing’s campaign to ban Chinglish actually began in 2001, a month after it won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, and that there has been little progress since. If the people of Beijing have no qualms with the signs and drivers in their city, should the “Chinglish police” even be correcting and standardizing them?

Chinglish phrases have a strange style that catches your eye. If I were to arrive at Beijing’s Capital Airport and go to the bathroom, I would pass a sign that reads “Careful Landslip Attention Security.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher that the sign means “Caution: Wet Floor.”

What if a similar campaign was to happen in the United States? Trying to systematically eliminate a way that people speak is not easy. Imagine if the United States government promised to delete all misuse of the word “like.” Like, if they were to, like, suspend college students for speaking, like, bad.

Sure, if the signs are changed we’ll have perfect English everywhere, but does that really matter?

There’s something about Chinglish phrases that’s unique. They’re different. The way that Chinglish blends Chinese and English sometimes results in a form of language that flows and has an odd harmony to it. If every Chinglish sign were translated into perfect English, there would be generic signs everywhere with a commanding tone to them. Think, “Don’t step on the grass,” as opposed to “We can’t stand the sight of mattress fragrant grass.”

On the other hand, some translations are just wrong. For example, the “Sex Shop” is a place where medicine and equipment for reproductive health is sold. That’s probably not the best translation.

It’s good of Beijing to strive for clarity with regards to translation, but where were all the campaigns to clean up grammar before the 2008 Olympic announcement?

More importantly, is it right to overhaul the city’s signs just because the world will be watching?

To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty. (Be careful, slippery slopes)