Those damned English experts

Discreet airport transit

The Beijing Subway system recently issued a bilingual safety manual for riders on the Airport Express line. Zhai Hua, a blogger who posts on cross-cultural issues, noted several types of problems with the booklet:

  • Typos: From the title, "Passenter Safety Tips," to "swiping the card gentaally";
  • Infelicitous translations: "do not attack door" (不要扒门: "Do Not Force Door"), "Please ask for the working staff of station for help if need," and "Waiting as your line No." (按线候车, apparently an instruction to stand as directed by yellow lines on the floor);
  • Mystifying cover design: A shapely woman silhouetted over a pink heart.

On October 30, the Beijing Youth Daily summarized Zhai's blog post and asked the subway company for an explanation:

A representative of the subway company said that some controversial translations, apart from obvious spelling errors, required expert assessment. "There are multiple translations for ditie (地铁), including 'metro' and 'subway,' and you can't say any particular one is wrong." The representative said that the operating company was responsible for printing the manual, and that he would handle the matter after looking into it further. As for the controversy over the cover image, that was a case of difference of opinion.

"Experts" could conceivably argue over whether to use "metro" or "subway," if the city hadn't already decided on the latter, but many of the errors in the pamphlet are indefensible.

Zhai notes that few years ago, an "expert" was cited in defense of Shanghai's use of "model unit" as a translation of 文明单位, an honor bestowed on organizations that meet certain standards of excellence. Zhai and other Internet commentators felt that the city's translation captured none of the meaning of the original and could be misinterpreted as referring to a promotional apartment unit in a new development.

The city's response to Xinmin Online:

Selection of "model units" in Shanghai is undertaken by the Shanghai Municipal Civilization Office, and the city government issues "model unit" plaques. The English translation is attested by the authority of an expert in English linguistics and has been in use for many years. It is authoritative and will continue to be used in the future.

Other parts of the country use "civilized unit," a translation that has its own problems. Yet when pressed, they would probably be able to justify the choice by appealing to the judgment of an expert.

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There are currently 12 Comments for Those damned English experts.

Comments on Those damned English experts

It's frustrating that all they really need is a qualified proofreader. They couldn't come up with 250 kuai an hour to hire one?

On the other hand: which subway system in Europe/USA provides a 'safety manual' also in Chinese? I think the initiative is laudable.

Please keep us posted on this issue. I've long wondered whether my "unit" was best described as "model" or "civilized," but budget constraints have thus far kept me from hiring an expert to review my unit and offer feedback.

Kudos to Zhai Hua!
I had just picked that brochure up earlier this month, and was amazed.
"Mystifying cover design"is one way to put it ... was it lifted from a 1970s soul album cover? or a dating service print ad?
p.s. to an earlier commenter - in Toronto most municipal brochures are available in multiple languages, and the public transit has a phone help service available in over 70 languages.

"Please Cherish Grass" sign on newly seeded landscaping

The Seattle area is small by Chinese standards but Sound Transit offers info in Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and of course Chinese: link I can't read it, are there any obvious or laughable errors?

@Mary, I don't think New York City even has a subway safety manual in English. But they do have some signs in Chinese and plenty more in Spanish.

I think the same marketing team must have some of the local bars as clients, like Drei Kronen, a German brew pub that earlier this year put up posters that showed English Crusaders sharing a pint under the heading, "Even Hercules Needs a Day Off." Another favorite, "you will become immediately infected [after entering our bar."

Cheers, Boyce

In America, translations in multiple languages are usually correct and idiomatic. But this is only because those translations are done/vetted by native speakers of the respective languages. America can afford to retain the service of these native speaking translators. On the other hand, in China, the translation are done by Chinese speakers only and they cannot afford (or do not know how to find) qualified translators who are native speakers of the language they want stuff translated into.

@mary, I live in Cali, pretty much everything here is translated into traditional and simplified. I'd wager the level of translation is light year's ahead of some of the stuff I've seen in China.

It would be more useful if they put up a notice to identify which airlines use which terminals, since travel agents appear incapable of notifying this invaluable info on a ticket.

I expected problems with the translation, but the cover! If I didn't know better, I'd have it was a health brochure about menstruation or a call girl ad.

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