Chinese New Year, a festive event celebrated by people all around the world (the image above was taken in Yokohama, Japan). As you may well know, the Chinese New Year is represented by one of 12 different animals which cycle annually, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, the pig, the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon and the snake.
Slowly but surely, bits of English are creeping into Chinese, Roman alphabet and all. English words and acronyms like Wifi, GDP and NBA now appear untranslated in all sorts of contexts, from spoken conversations to emails to news stories.
But not everyone is pleased with this trend, which is known as “zero translation.” The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, recently weighed in with an editorial attacking the use of untranslated English words.
According to the BBC, the editorial, which bore the headline “Why is zero translation so prevalent?,” claimed that
“[S]uch practices damage the integrity and harmony of the Chinese language, dilute the richness of the Chinese culture and hamper comprehension. “How many people can understand these words?” they ask.”
According to the New York Times, the editorial went on to say that “It’s become so serious that the foreign words are even showing up in regular publications and formal documents, giving rise to resentment among the public.”
But is the public really resentful of these English loanwords? Surely some are. But not everyone, or the government would have an easier time promoting its list of “official translations.” As it stands now, some translations for commonly used English terms take off quickly. Other zero translation words, like NBA, are much more firmly entrenched. The government has been trying to get people to stop saying “NBA” in reference to American basketball for the past four years, with no success.
That’s not to say that the English words being used in China now will be used forever. Sometimes, “zero translation” is just a temporary stage. For example, according to the New York Times, “email” was once used in China, but now two separate Chinese words have evolved to take its place:” 电邮 (dianyou), literally “electronic mail,” and 邮件 (youjian), which simply means ‘mail.'”
The People’s Daily editorial has generated a lot of attention and commentary online. Many people feel that trying to preserve the “purity” of Mandarin Chinese is a lost cause. For example, “My brothers name is Ruprecht” commented on the BBC website:
“Having worked in and visited China for 24 years, I can honestly say the people really don’t care how Western culture affects their language or anything else. They are very comfortable with it. Maybe in 20 years time the Chinese Govt will catch up with their own people.”
Meanwhile, DGR in Ithaca told the New York Times that while some of the editorial’s concerns were valid, others were misplaced:
“I fully share the concern about loanwords that are transliterated into a meaningless string of Chinese characters, for example the popular 巴士 ‘bashi’ for “bus”, with a literal meaning of handle/knight — i.e. gibberish. The evolution of the e-mail from this to a native combination is correct. Using a foreign-derived word or name in Latin script at least preserves the meaning of Chinese characters. I have no problem with “NBA”.”
It’s probably impossible to stem the tide of English loanwords into Chinese, but that doesn’t make translation any less important for companies looking to expand into the Chinese market. The cachet of “zero translation” may fade over time. A well-translated brand will endure.
Over the years, China has become famous around the world for culture, food, industry . . . and funny translation mistakes. “Engrish” may have been born in Japan, but China has been exporting memes of hilariously bad translations for years now.
Except that the Chinese government is officially over it. Last week, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine issued a new set of guidelines regarding the use of English in public places. Is this the end of “Engrish?”
To find out, let’s take a look at the history of English translation in China, and why the new Chinese translation guidelines are needed.
A Brief History of Translation in China
Translation in China has a long, respectable history that dates to the Zhou dynasty in 1100 BC. At that time, Chinese translators were government clerks. Their goal was to “to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding.”
Centuries later, translators would bring Buddhist scriptures to China. In the 7th century CE, during the Tang Dynasty, the famous monk Xuan Zang translated 1335 volumes of Buddhist manuscripts.
Later on, during the Qing Dynasty, translator Yan Fu brought Western political classics like Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to China. His criteria were “Faithfulness, Fluency, and Elegance.”
So, what happened? How did we get from there to today, where “roasted wheat gluten” often shows up on menus as “roasted husband.”
Why Do So Many Funny Translation Fails Come From China?
It’s nobody’s fault, really. Chinese and English are two very different languages. The number of English-speaking tourists in China has increased over the past two decades, and that gives small business owners a reason to cater to them.
However, these small businesses don’t always have the funds to have their signs, menus, and documents professionally translated. Machine translations are often inadequate. Mistakes will be made, and the results will be hilarious. And meme-worthy. Websites like Engrish.com showcase these translation mistakes. Pictures go viral. (It’s also worth noting that while most Western businesses have access to better resources, translation mistakes go both ways. ) Read more
Friday, China celebrated the arrival of two pandas from the United States, Tai Shan and Mei Lan. The two pandas are being treated like the celebrities they are, and China is sparing no expense when it comes to making them comfortable in their new homes. That includes hiring a Chinese tutor for Mei Lan, the female panda born in a zoo in Atlanta.
Although she was born in the USA, her parents were loaned to the Atlanta Zoo by the Chinese government, and under the agreement, all giant pandas and their cubs must go home to China after a specified period of time.
In the Los Angeles Times, Huang Xiangming, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding’s animal management department,explained that:
“Mei Lan has been living in the United States since she was born, and she must be unfamiliar with Chinese.”
In an article posted on China Daily, Cui Kai, a worker at the breeding center, said that:
“She will be taught Chinese with a Sichuan dialect. She will become familiar with some simple phrases. For example, she will be taught the phrases for returning to the cage or coming out from the dormitory.”
According to China Daily, 14 people have already applied for the job of teaching Chinese to the panda. The US sent back another panda, Tai Shan, on Friday as well. However, there is no need for a Chinese tutor for Tai Shan-he will be kept at the Bifengxia Base of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, and handlers there are bilingual, able to speak both English and Chinese.
Both pandas are expected to be introduced into the breeding program, and the Chinese government has set up a website to allow citizens to vote on a “boyfriend” for Mei Lan.
Jokes and satire are often quite difficult to translate. So, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that a leading Chinese newspaper recently found the joke was on them when they quoted an article from “The Onion”, a satirical American online newspaper, as fact.
It all started on November 14th, when The Onion announced the winner of its “Sexiest Man Alive” award: newly-minted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Someone over at China’s People’s Daily apparently thought this little tidbit was written in complete and total sincerity:
“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”
According to The Onion’s article, that week’s print edition was to include a 16-page photo spread of Kim Jong-un. Not to be outdone, The People’s Daily posted an apparently serious article on Kim’s “victory,” complete with a 55-page photo spread showing the young dictator on the back of a horse, at a military parade, wearing sunglasses as he waves to adoring crowds, and so on. The article and accompanying photo spread are gone now, but The Atlantic still has screenshots.
For someone not familiar with The Onion, such a mistake is perhaps understandable. As Kevin Sites, a journalist and associate professor at Hong Kong University, explained to Voice of America:
“Their satire is so finely honed. It’s very sharp. And, in fact, in some cases – maybe not in this one – it’s nuanced and not everyone gets the joke around the world,” said Sites.
A South Korean online newspaper also printed the story. However, they noted in the original Korean-language version that it was, in fact, satire. Unfortunately, that observation didn’t make it into the English-language version of the story, leading readers to think that they had also been duped.
This is not the first (and probably won’t be the last) time that a foreign news source translates a story from the Onion without translating the sarcasm behind it. According to Wikipedia, the list of countries in which news organizations have fallen victim include China, Iran, and Bangladesh, Denmark, Russia, Italy, France…and the United States.
Sometimes, it seems, sarcasm doesn’t translate even when you speak the same language.
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