Lost in Translation

Lost in TranslationWe've all laughed over badly translated English menus and signage in China but the message usually gets through.

It can be more of a challenge trying to understand the fractured English of instruction manuals for set-top boxes and other hi-tech equipment made in China.

Most mistakes in Chinese-to-English translations are funny or just puzzling. But sometimes the quality of the translation is so poor that it can jeopardise the image of a city — or even country.

So says the Shanghai Daily, which argues the huge investment being made to attract foreign visitors to events such as next year's Olympics and the 2010 World Expo risks being let down by the poor quality of the English in public places.

The newspaper is particularly outraged by one sign that has recently gone up in Shanghai train station, which reads “Moves the Vehicle Waiting Room”. The paper says

What does that mean? Foreigners must be bewildered by this description, which comes from a word-for-word translation from the Chinese. Even Chinese people, with a basic knowledge of English, must also be left stunned. How does such awful English appear at the Shanghai railway station?

It turns out the sign is meant to help foreign visitors find the waiting room for the new high-speed bullet train service.

Anyone who has tried to earn a living as a translator will tell you that the main reason for these errors is that translation work is rarely considered — or paid — as if it were “value added” activity.

If done by agencies, translations are paid at piece-work rates and done in a hurry, so the quality of much translation leaves a lot to desired. In the case of short bits of text like signage or letters, most businesses consider it too much hassle to commission an agency to translate a handful of words.

Instead, they find an employee who supposedly speaks good English and get them to translate the text for free. In a real emergency, when no English-speaking colleague is available, then you get out the dictionary and translate the words literally.

The results are often dire but usually no-one notices until the words are cast in stone or ink, by which time it is too late.

One notorious translation faux pas that occurred recently concerns a chocolate-coloured sofa. On the label of the sofa, made by a Guangzhou company, the colour got translated as “nigger-brown”. This description caused considerable upset when one of the sofas was acquired by a black family in Canada.

A California senator, who was born in Guangzhou, heard about the sofa and turned up the heat by calling on the Chinese company to immediately stop selling furniture “labelled with a racist slur” .

The company blamed the poor translation on its software, supplied by China's Kingsoft. The latest version of the software does not make the same mistake.

But not everyone is apparently running the latest version as the offensive English translation is still used in China describe everything from chocolate-coloured pigments to shoes — see this story for more.

As China emerges to become an important market for capital and consumer goods companies in the west, it is only a matter of time before we hear similar horror stories about translations but this time going the other way, from English to Mandarin.


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