Another Chinese vs English sign test

Remember the question Sima brought up about how much surface area was needed to communicate equivalent amounts in Chinese vs English?

Looking back through that article and the comments, I’d conclude the following:

  1. For unpearly prose at any rate, the surface area needed is probably about the same between the two languages.
  2. It still might be the case that non-prose signs (e.g. a sign with succinct phrases or just a word or two) could be shorter in Chinese than English
  3. “Native readers” of Language A can read Language A from a greater distance than they can a non-native Language B (whether A = Chinese or A = English)

All this came to mind at the Xiamen Botanical Gardens (also mentioned here) when I saw the sign below*:


More accurately, the surface area questions came to mind after I had read the service quality objectives, contemplated my level of satisfaction with the Xiamen botanical garden (>90%?), and pondered whether I should make a complaint (what if I was #2 out of 150,000?). Hey, I couldn’t help it — the sign’s practically begging you to ruin some bureaucrat’s day by mucking up his stats.

But since my parents and I had just been awed by the most extensive and exquisite cactus garden any of us had seen anywhere, I didn’t have the heart to do anything mean. And then I looked at the sign again: man, that English really dominates, doesn’t it?

Then again, maybe the English domination of this sign actually makes sense in light of the observations from Sima’s post. First, maybe the Chinese font is smaller than the English because of observation (3) — that is, the sign’s designers, presumably native readers of Chinese, felt like the smaller hanzi jumped out at them quite clearly even though, to my eye, the font is pretty small. Second, perhaps the English phrasing is longer not just due to poor translation but also because of observations (1) and (2) — that phrases, not prose, lend themselves to needing less space in Chinese.

Or, maybe it’s just bad design.


*Intentionally small — click for full-size version

8 responses to “Another Chinese vs English sign test”

  1. Kellen says:

    “Native readers” of Language A can read Language A from a greater distance than they can a non-native Language B (whether A = Chinese or A = English)

    Woah! I must’ve been out that day cuz I completely disagree. My eyesight ain’t that great, and I much prefer Chinese signage to the Latin equivalent when it came to living in Shanghai. I could make out the blurry hanzi well before any “Tibet Road” nonsense.

  2. Syz says:

    Kellen, did you try the test texts that Sima put up in that other post? I’d be curious to hear your results.

  3. What the hell is this sign talking about?

  4. Syz says:

    tnl: This sign is about making the boss not so jumpy when the regional inspectors come around. He (and he’s surely a He) can point out that even foreign guests of the botanical gardens are now informed of the goals, policies and metrics. Furthermore, he can pull out his dog-eared complaint book, couple it with an electronic printout of gate entry metrics (See? the system is quite modern and completely invulnerable to tampering), and prove that — even including Old Zhou’s stink about the unsightliness of the feral cat population — the complaint rate was low enough to be measured in the ppm range.

  5. @Syz: Thanks for the elucidation, because the sign made abso-effing-lutely no sense to me. I just wonder if this ‘thing’ actually qualifies as a ‘sign’ or just a ‘resource-wasting implement.’

    (None of my people in the office could make any sense of it either. And they can read Chinese too.)

  6. pott says:

    Signs in Chinese tend to use more elements from Classical Chinese, which is often laconic. Most languages can beat Classical Chinese in the space-occupying contest so easily that the “native reader” effect alone does not explain it. Here‘s a Manchu vs. Chinese example.

  7. Ferd Roseboom says:

    RE: “What the hell is this sign talking about?”

    In 2002, I wrote to Xiamen’s civic gov’t about this problem outlining the reasons why it should be addressed: At the time, even Chinese had written about the problem or so I’d been told. I even offered to voluntarily help as did about a dozen other foreigners who along with Chinese English professors from XiaDa, assembled a committee to address the issue. On a regular basis, we’d review the city’s signs via site visits, emails and meetings to discuss appropriate translations–not as easy as it seems. Obviously, what we failed to do was to set up a system within the civic gov’t to ensure any public sign translation req’d would need approval by our voluntary committee.

  8. […] time ago there was a post on Sinoglot about Chinese script on signs, noting how compact it could be. I recently saw a good example of […]

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