Museum Signs

The Chinese writing system is incredibly efficient, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a pain to learn and we all forget how to write the odd character from time to time, but you can cram so much into such a small space. It’s not just things like the Analects which, in translation, require lines of English to represent the briefest of the sage’s utterances; even making simple arrangements by SMS/text message seems so much more convenient in Chinese.

Then, as Bryan pointed out, there are signs in your local hospital which protrude unreasonably far, simply so that they can helpfully accommodate the English translation.


Watch out. That thing could take your eye out! Continue…

English & McDonald’s wifi

Killing time on the way to the train station the other day, a friend and I stopped into McDonald’s for coffee that was cheaper than that of the Starbuck’s next door. Thinking they may have wifi, I pulled out my iPod to find not one but three wireless networks all linked to McDonald’s. Excellent, I thought, this should be quick.

Here’s a shot of the main page.


Translation: airbrushing, hyping, linking to originals

I’ll bet someone’s internet manifesto already contains this commandment: Link to original documents if possible.

I seem to recall something like that; it’d be great to have a link.

The reason this is important in the context of China is that — in the course of translating, paraphrasing, and summarizing from one language to another — sensitive subjects often get filtered. In the direction of English to Chinese they might get filtered quite literally by the censorious eye. Black and White Cat and others document this kind of airbrushing quite nicely. In the direction of Chinese to English, words sometimes get a dose of rhetorical viagra, all the better to serve a particular constituency.

This kind of thing is unavoidable. But, but… if everyone would just link original sources, eventually someone besides the unfaithful translator might go back to the original in a disinterested way, to look at what was actually said and write it thus.

In this way, linking becomes a Good Thing in and of itself. I may have my biases in translation — I may not even know that I have them, right? — but if I link to the original source I’ve opened my work up for criticism and am prepared to consider alternatives. Continue…

Translation as news, source linking as obligation

Sinologistical Violincellist does a fine job, as usual, of digging into what might have been said by North Korea recently. It has shown up in Business Week, for example, as “unprecedented nuclear strikes” — their quotation marks.

But where’s the original source? Missing in action, so far. So SV takes the indirect approach and translates a Chinese report on the same incident as:

strengthen the power of [our] self-defensive nuclear deterrent

He notes that this milder version doesn’t prove any case that North Korea wasn’t as provocative as reports suggest. It may just as well be Chinese media oversight directing writers to tone down the rhetoric. In either case it clearly shows the need for some original sourcing. Continue…


I’ve just been to see Avatar in all its nauseating 3-D glory. I’ll spare the review at this stage, but something caught my ear.

For anyone familiar with the film, I apologise for the following description.

At some point, in the first half of the story, on an alien world, an interloper (American, would you believe) encounters a bunch of locals (aliens, no less). Now the aliens have their own alien language (helpfully subtitled) and wouldn’t be expected to speak English, but then one of them addresses the interloper in English. A surprised interloper turns around and asks:

“Where did you learn to speak English?”

Or at least, that’s probably what happens. Continue…

"not enough of a friend"

Always nice to see I’m not the only one struggling with idiomatic translations from Mandarin into what is ostensibly my native language. When translation pro Bruce Humes encountered ‘Wuhan is really not enough of a friend’ recently, he noted:

Chinese speakers will recognize this last sentence as a translation of a popular phrase (tho’ not always about Wuhan): 武汉真是不够朋友! Assuming I am right about the original Chinese, two questions: Does this quote read like “normal” English to you? How would you translate it?

In the interest of supporting direct answers to Bruce, I’ll leave comments closed here so that you can head over to Paper Republic to add your thoughts.

The language of China’s GDP

Sinologistical Violincello has some hard-hitting translation observations and questions up this morning regarding China’s GDP:

the phrase “老二 / lao er” is getting thrown around as China looks to move firmly into the number 2 slot globally, making it sound as if the world order were some kind of Confucian family of older brothers jostling for respect.

and then, translating snide BBS comments about the pointlessness of hyping GDP:

没意思,太没意思了!都炒糊了,人均呢?虎年我们要的是虎威,不要炒威! — Uninteresting, totally meaningless! It’s all just fried paste. Per capita income? In the year of the tiger, we need the tiger’s power; what we don’t need is fried power? [Note: this is one of the tricky things about translating BBS comments: is the really idiomatic language above indicative of a new nation-wide slang word, or is this cat local and/or high on Red Bull and feeling creative? That’s why there’s no substitute for being in China…But if anyone can dissertate on the meaning of 炒糊, 炒威 or just plain 炒威, please don’t hesitate to comment on this post.]

If you want to supplement your GDP discussions with some visual language, Continue…