Trends and Buzz
Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, September 6, 2005 at 6:29 PM
Sign for Beijing's famous Racist Park
As part of its campaign to prepare the city for an influx of foreign visitors attending the Olympic Games, Beijing is in the process of correcting and standardizing translations on signs across the city.
Beijing began turning its attention to multilingual signs as part of the "reform and opening up" in the 80s, especially in preparation for the 1990 Asian Games. Latin characters are certainly more familiar to most foreign visitors than hanzi, but translations vary from serviceable to eyebrow-raising to completely incomprehensible. To avoid embarrassment come 2008, the city is overhauling the signs, and in early August it set up a website for city residents to point out areas that needed attention. The media got into the act: for a week or so in August, Beijing's Legal Mirror published a "mistake of the day" photograph.
Beijing's translated signs exhibit several types of problems:
These examples were taken from the website of the "Beijing Speaks to the World" campaign. A significant number of submissions do point out mistakes, and many offer corrections. A sizable minority, however, seem to want to exchange one mistake for another — is "No Service Now" any better than "Business Suspended" as a translation of 暂停营业?
In addition to the genuine errors mentioned here, there seems to be a feeling that even faultless English translations are in many cases too abrupt or commanding, not "harmonious" enough (to borrow the current political buzzword). Not content with changing "Stop to smoke" into "No Smoking," many feel that Beijing should follow the "*-free" phrasing that is trendy in many places, and change all "No Smoking" signs over to "Smoke-Free Building," "Smoke-Free Library" and such.
Questions of style do not occur merely on English signage, however. Beijing recently turned down a proposal to change the names of scores of bus stops across the city that include "grave" 坟 in their names; people felt these names were too morbid and wanted them changed to either the more cultured "mausoleum" 陵 or one of several sound-alikes. The proposal was felt to be too much of a hassle, as well as a rejection of Beijing's history, so it was eventually rejected.
One other aspect of public English that has received attention lately has been the proliferation of trendy real-estate developments that are known primarily by an English name. Ads in local papers for new communities use English names and slogans in their ad copy (sometimes miswritten). Older residents complain that they don't know their city anymore.
Here we see a developer pushing the boundaries just a bit more — the development here isn't given a name in English, or in any other foreign language for that matter. An unpronounceable string of IPA symbols seems to want to be read as "Art by Shore," but I couldn't tell you if that's what it's really intended to mean. Pity the poor Beijing taxi driver who has to read that off of a "Please take me to _____" card.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.