It was with a twinge of mild sadness that I heard the news that authorities in Shanghai are looking to clean up the city’s linguistic image ahead of next year’s World Expo. The city which apparently is famous for quirky and sometimes downright bizarre signs in English has decided that the displays of prowess in using online machine translation systems, which have yielded such gems as the restaurant called “Translate server error“, bring shame on the city and must be eliminated.
I have written about the perils of using online machine translation systems before and while I haven’t veered from my original position that they are in no way a substitute for a real translation, I am a little sad that the kind of translation howlers you see while on holidays might be under threat. Apart from being incontinence-inducingly funny, they sometimes give you a fascinating insight into the psychology of a language and even of a whole culture which you won’t find in any guidebook or in any lecture. Like a sort of linguistic crash scene investigator you can sift through the translational wreckage and piece together a story to explain what makes people tick. Of course this works best when the bad translation is the work of a human translator but even a bad machine translation can show you the idiosyncrasies of a language. I’m starting to see now what Lawrence Venuti (whose translation theories I have tended to dismiss as nuttier than squirrel poo, especially when he talks about ethnocentric violence) means when he pushes for foreignising translations. When you walk down a street with badly translated signs, you know you’re in a foreign country, not some sanitised, facsimile high-street that you could find anywhere in the world and that makes it more exciting.
Now for some reason the Chinese examples always seem to attract more publicity and it’s possible that the structural differences between the two languages might have something to do with it but there are hugely comical translation train-wrecks in all languages. For me, one of my favourites is the Welsh road sign which, instead of saying “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” said “I am out of the office at the moment”. It turns out someone at the council roads department sent an email to their in-house translation department where the staff were on holiday and had set an auto-responder with the following message in Welsh: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.”[sic] Unfortunately our linguistically deficient council official mistook this Welsh text for the translation and had it printed on a massive sign and placed at the side of a road where it stayed until Welsh-speaking members of the public alerted the council. As people much cooler than I am would say: “Fail!”.
Anyway, if people start cleaning up their acts linguistically, especially in tourist-related areas, how much duller will life be? A lot probably. I like the fact that the English language is regularly dismembered by enthusiastic and well-meaning foreigners and I hope translation boo-boos like this don’t disappear altogether. It makes the language fun and it distracts from the carnage carried out by supposed native-speakers every day. I’m sure the same thing goes on in other languages. There is a book called Übelsetzungen which showcases some atrocious “into German” translations – if you speak German it’s definitely worth having a look. Just in case the worst does happen and mistranslations suddenly disappear, here are some classic examples of translations gone wrong courtesy of Charlie Croker’s “Lost in Translation”
- “Good appearance no watermelon please”
- “Our Mongolian hotpot buffet guarantees you will be able to eat all you wish until you are fed up”
- “Smart noshery makes u slobber”
- “Danger prohibited aboard this boat”
- “We try our best to decrease your life”
- “Be careful to butt head on wall”
- “Please take one step forward and crap twice”
Oh and one last sign which probably doesn’t need any translation…