Monthly Archives: April 2013

Words, characters, and odd translations

The more I learn about the Chinese language, the more sympathy I gain for the linguistic differences that lead to the often amusing signs that are the subject of many blog posts including our own.  Much of the problem comes from the tremendous structural differences between the languages.

Chinese is inextricably linked to its thousands of characters.  They are not just a representation of meaning and pronunciation, but the language’s fundamental building block.  With rare exceptions, each represents a single syllable and a constellation of vague meanings that are often determined by context.  Classical Chinese poetry is rich in ambiguity as characters resonate and flow into each other.

The concept of a “word” is relatively new to Chinese.  In modern Mandarin, words are mostly two syllables, usually composed of two characters that modify each other’s meaning into a specific term similar to those of modern Western languages.  But in classical Chinese and some regional dialects, words were the rare exception, and single characters the fundamental unit of meaning.  And even now, Chinese words are written without spaces and break arbitrarily across lines, leading to ambiguity that confuses even native speakers.

So, translators of restaurant menus are often left wondering which words to look up in their dictionary.  Combining the wrong characters into a word can transform “cold noodles” into an unintended political commentary:

IMG_0378Gongbao chicken is often translated with an explosive alternate reading of the character “bao”:


Splitting a two-character word into its components can be disastrous, as in this translation of a type of mushroom:

IMG_0274And even two-character words often have alternate meanings, with “snails” translated as “screws”.

So why don’t Chinese restaurants spend a few dollars and hire a native speaker to check their translations?  The answer is simple: English on most restaurant menus is not intended for foreigners, who rarely visit unaccompanied by locals.  English is there to make the restaurant look classy and justify higher prices to the local population.

IMG_0368Western letters can also be confusing in reverse.  Non-native speakers do not naturally clump letters into words, sometimes substituting another common word with a similar visual shape, as in this “baby on board” sign.

None of this explains the signs posted in front of urinals in men’s rooms throughout China.  The usual message is the “one small step for a man” already covered in a previous posting.  Having made progress with their multi-decade “no spitting” campaign, sanitation officials have apparently decided to try to convince Chinese men to stand closer to the receptacle to reduce the volume of another liquid that often ends up on the floor.

But what should we make of this message in the brand new terminal of Beijing’s Capital Airport?