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Beijing cleans up its sign translations

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:

  1. Non-standard pinyin usage: The names of most districts, streets, and landmarks ought to be rendered in roman transcription according to a set of standard rules, but many signs use ad-hoc transliterations, which for a single location may vary from sign to sign. 闹市口大街, for example, on roadsigns is "Naoshikou Dajie" but on subway signs it is "Naoshikou Street."
  2. English grammar or spelling errors: From simple typos to redundant words to what people like to call Chinglish. "Welcome you to come here," and other oddly-phrased lines.
  3. Mistranslations: Like the photo above, pointing the way from Madian to the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, some of these translations may actually do a better job of informing tourists what awaits them at their destination; unfortunately, under the new way of thinking, the English must match the original Chinese. Many of these errors seem to come from people copying words out of a dictionary: 前方50米处入口 translated as "Front 500 rice entrance," for example, or "Export" rather than "Exit" above a door.

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.

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