Lost in translation: policing unintentionally hilarious Chinese signage

This article from the Wall Street Journal seems to have created a sensation here today. No time to comment on it, but here’s the whole article, which is bound to become a classic.

For years, foreigners in China have delighted in the loopy English translations that appear on the nation’s signs. They range from the offensive (“Deformed Man,” outside toilets for the handicapped) to the sublime (on park lawns, “Show Mercy to the Slender Grass”).

Last week, Beijing city officials unveiled a plan to stop the laughter. With hordes of foreign visitors expected in town for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing wants to cleanse its signs of translation nonsense. For the next eight months, 10 teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city’s parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.

Already, fans of the genre are mourning the end of an era, and some Web sites dedicated to it have seen traffic spike. The bewildering signs were “one of the great things we want to show people visiting us,” says financial-services consultant Josh Kurtzig, a Washington native who lives in Beijing. Correcting them is “really taking away one of the joys of China.”

Stuck in Beijing traffic recently, Mr. Kurtzig noticed workers replacing one of the classics: “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease Beijing.” The new sign: “Hospital of Proctology.” He grabbed his BlackBerry and emailed the news to friends around the globe. Their reactions, he says, were swift, and mostly unfavorable. “Nooooooooooo,” read an email from one friend.

Not many locals share this sense of loss. “We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners,” says Olive Wang, marketing manager for a major sportswear company.

Many in China regard the Olympics as the nation’s coming-out party — a milestone in its ascent as a global power. Anticipation of the Games is fueling a surge of national pride, and has sparked campaigns to make people smile more and embrace better etiquette.

The sign initiative is the latest part of a campaign to improve English translations in public, including on restaurant menus. The group behind the effort, called the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program, is headed by Chen Lin, an elderly language professor who acts as its language police chief.

“We want everything to be correct. Grammar, words, culture, everything,” says Prof. Chen, whose formal English enunciation would befit a Shakespearean actor. “Beijing will have thousands of visitors coming,” he says as he flips through pictures of poorly translated signs on his dictionary-covered desk. “We don’t want anyone laughing at us.”

The sign police will conduct spot checks “to see if the signs are right,” says Beijing Vice Mayor Ji Lin.

China hardly has a monopoly on poor translation. In the U.S., the popularity of Chinese-language tattoos during the past decade has left lots of hipster skin marked with nonsensical character combinations.

In anticipation of the Games, Prof. Chen set up his group in 2002 with backing from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The group’s efforts, he says, will pick up over the next 1½ years and will likely involve thousands of city employees and volunteers.

Already, the city has replaced 6,300 road signs that carried bewildering admonitions such as: “To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty.” (Translation: Be careful, slippery.) Replacing signs will cost the city a substantial amount of money, although it isn’t clear how much. Some of the faulty ones, Prof. Chen notes, are decades old and are carved in marble.

The son of a government official and a teacher, Prof. Chen got hooked on English in high school by reading simplified versions of Shakespeare. His interest made him a target during the decadelong Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, when associations with the West were a liability. He was sent off to do hard labor in the countryside.

In 1978, as China began embracing a policy of economic reform and openness, Prof. Chen hosted the country’s first television program teaching English. He became a minor celebrity. “Everywhere I went, even in winter, I had to wear sunglasses,” he recalls.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the popularity of the English language grew faster than the nation’s proficiency in it. English words were used on billboards and on clothing to denote exoticism and sophistication — but the words often made no sense. Prof. Chen says that municipal departments sometimes would leave it to employees with only rudimentary English skills and a dictionary to handle translations of public signs. At some of Beijing’s most famous historic attractions, tourists were left puzzling over incomprehensible signs.

Prof. Chen’s Beijing Speaks committee set up a Web site to solicit volunteer translators, part of a parallel effort to provide standardized translations for Chinese menus. In a little over two months, it drew more than 7,000 responses. “People really want to get involved,” he says.

These days, Prof. Chen regularly cruises the city looking for faulty signs, often in the company of David Tool, a retired U.S. Army colonel and longtime resident of China. Sometimes, a Beijing television crew accompanies them, documenting the results. (Two programs on the topic have already aired.)

Some of the many Westerners living in Beijing view the disappearance of China’s lost-in-translation signs as part of a broader modernization drive that is causing Beijing to lose some of its character. Other foreigners lament the loss of a source of amusement.

Tourists and expatriates have been posting photographs of what has come to be known as “Chinglish” on Internet sites such as chinglish.de. Beijing’s sign-improvement efforts appear to be boosting contributions and visitors to the sites.

In recent months, for example, the number of daily visitors to the Chinglish page of software engineer Everett Griffith’s Web site, pocopico.com — it includes a photo of a restroom sign that reads “Genitl Emen” — has jumped by 25% to 500, he says.

Some foreigners question whether Beijing authorities should devote such effort to changing signs, given other pre-Olympic concerns such as traffic and pollution woes.

Says longtime resident Jeremy Goldkorn, a South African: “Frankly, I prefer clean toilets to correct English.”

The Discussion: 7 Comments

I fear the day when all the signs are cleaned up, taxi drivers learn to drive in the same lane for more than 5 seconds, and everyone stops spitting.

It’ll probably be the day we all have to retire the phrase, “That’s just China!”

February 6, 2007 @ 7:09 pm | Comment

Just on a sidenote to this article.
Lots of those signs may indeed be hilarious but will somebody tell me the funny part about that “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease Beijing”? If outside signs are meant to communicate a message, or even to advertise, then what message is “Hospital of Proctology” making ? That I don’t want you in my hospital because I’ll make sure that less than half of the population understands what specialty is performed in this hospital.
Let the doctors inside call themselves proctologists, no issue with that, but when it comes to someone’s health, we can use all simplicity and clearliness we can get. So hail to the Chinese sign, down with the new version !

February 6, 2007 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

They could mount this kind of campaign for 20 years and it would barely scratch the surface. For every one they fix, 10 more incorrect signs will go up.

Don’t worry Lao Lu, mangled and WAY too specific English signs will be around for a long time.

February 6, 2007 @ 8:41 pm | Comment

Don’t remember that this campaign is only going on in Beijing. There are still countless signs in the rest of China that won’t be cleaned up anytime soon. Then, of course, there will surely be new ones in Beijing after 2008. Chinglish fans need not despair.

February 6, 2007 @ 9:29 pm | Comment


Chinese often translate English literally without really understanding the real meaning. It’s not their fault.

I like it that way though…it’s just shows that China is not America yet.


February 6, 2007 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

ts, I had a modicum of respect for you before, but after that asinine comment, I know you’re either a moron, a joker or a troll. Maybe a little of all three. As if China could do anything that America does not do (how about eating their babies alive?) and it would be good, simply because Americans don’t do it. Brilliant.

February 6, 2007 @ 11:04 pm | Comment

As long as Chinese people believe they can speak English better than a native speaker, there will be silly signs. A friend of mine made a good point when he got his absentee ballot and noticed that the directions were in several languages including Chinese. Any mistakes? Nope. Want to know why? Because America found a Chinese person to write it, and probably another Chinese person to check it. In China they use a Chinese “English expert”, and so the carnival of madness ensues. CCTV9, welcome to take Beijing taxi, anus and intestine hospital, and on and on. I think lao lu put it best when he said the goal is “simplicity and clearliness”.

February 7, 2007 @ 11:10 am | Comment

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