In Beijing, it’s hard to get away from the Olympic improvements. I think the changes are somewhere between using the good china for company, and completely reinventing your wardrobe, habits and personality to attract some guy from history class. (Not that I ever did that) I’m seeing more and more English around town, and English-language menus, maps and information are supposed to be readily available in Beijing before the Olympics. Unfortunately, I’m afraid these Chinglish attempts will cause more confusion.
There are a lot of factors leading to Chinglish disasters. First, in many cases, a literal translation just won’t do. Common signs like Take Care Knock Head and Already Broken still crack me up. But no longer thinking of a direct 1:1 ratio between English and Chinese words has really helped in my language learning.
The new English signs and menu are prone to other problems, like the typos of normal human error, rush-job spelling mistakes, confusion between similar letters and words, and so forth. At times, it’s literally easier for me to decipher the Chinese. (Which either means that I rock, or that I’ve memorized the collection of dishes we usually order. You decide.)
Not to mention the obscure English vocabulary brought back to life by electronic translators. Stick and I went to see an apartment recently because the landlady promised us a bathroom containing a lavabo and close stool. That’s a sink and a toilet to those of you without SCA membership. I don’t know if ad and pamphet translators agree with my students, and feel that the longest semi-synonym provided by the dictionary is the most impressive, and therefore the best choice. But you can easily imagine the humor of these BabelFish translations.
The plan is great. A few words of English — even broken English — have helped me out many times. But in practice, there is an East-meets-West problem. The Chinese praise even the clumsiest attempts at Mandarin and will probably be expecting the same in reverse. They’ll be expecting thanks and praise for their English accommodations. They’re adding English to places they expect foreigners to visit, with the convenience of foreign visitors (or at least the tourists’ wallets) in mind.
But Western visitors of all sorts will be giggling and snapping pictures of Crap Salad or Bland Kitty, which are just too funny not to be shared with folks back home. The offended Chinese will wonder why Westerners have not only failed to thank them for their English translations, but are actually criticizing them, failing to respect the effort that went into creating an English-language menu just for foreigners (even if it was plugged into Babelfish and then printed off).
But I’m worried that this attempt at hospitality is doomed create more international bad blood. Negative comments in the Western press about any aspect of China, are often seen as proof that the Western media is biased against China. I’m sure this will be a general problem with all the foreign reporters and visitors at the Olympics, someone’s going to have something negative to say, but it’s especially rough in this situation. I’m worried that this will feed the Western stereotype of the Chinese producing worthless garbage, and the Chinese stereotype of rude, anti-Chinese foreigners.