(This post began as a comment in response to comments to my previous post, Civilized Chaoyang: What Was It Before?. It “grew” into this. I could post another photographic example of the Civilized Chaoyang Campaign, but I won’t. Even I’d consider that as “piling on.” The “new grads” alludes to one of the comments, by mike: “This is merely a translation issue. Yes, they should overhaul the Chinese translation industry. But millions of new grads need jobs.”)
The “new grads” need to step away from the dictionary and realize that translation is not a cut ‘n paste operation. It’s clear that this message hasn’t yet gotten through, despite a long history of pointed criticism. It highlights the deficiencies of how English is taught at all levels of the Chinese education system, where the only priority is passing a battery of domestic English tests, rather than actually understanding and practically using English.
I cannot even begin to imagine how much money was spent in this pubic relations (PR) campaign to promote a Civilized Chaoyang. (I assume that this was a government-funded project with the bill footed by the Chaoyang District taxpayers.) The signs are, embarrassingly, everywhere. The oddest thing is that it was launched in the capital, an international city chock-full of literate native English speakers, who, for a modest fee, could have advised and vetted such unflattering, failed attempts at cross-cultural sophistication. It also points out the wrong-headed direction of so many Chinese-to English translations aimed at the domestic market: it is generally understood that you translate into your native language rather than out of it into an other language – and often with the assistance of a native speaker of the target language. If I were running a responsible cross-cultural PR campaign in Brooklyn or Belleville and wanted to render native English or French into Chinese – even if I’d studied Chinese since primary school – I would first run it by a literate native Chinese translator before I’d go to print and possibly end up looking like a fool to my target audience of Chinese readers.
But in China this sort of mangled Chinese-to-English translation is standard fare, confirming, once again, that the audience is clearly not native English speakers. This is English as an official status marker, directed at a Chinese audience (“See, we’re smart and inclusive, too. We know English.”) even if it is not only wrong, but also ridiculously inappropriate. Yes, new grads may need jobs, but the cost in international perceptions is at the expense of the Chinese culture, which deserves a lot better than this. Advice to Chinese PR firms: if you don’t need the English, let it go, but if you want to include it, you have to get it right, which means spending a few extra kuai for vetting. (In a neighborhood where I lived several years ago there was a hair salon with a very large sign that advertised itself in English as “Sea Sail Nurses Dreaming.” You could take this in a lot of directions, none of which have anything to do with actually getting a haircut – which, of course, may have been the point, though, still, the business didn’t last all that long.)
These sorts of thoughtless attempts at translation are very public reinforcements of a broken system that further impairs Chinese learners who actually want to improve their English skills. Accurate visual reinforcement is always a benefit, though when it’s inaccurate, it fortifies mistakes. But this is not about education; it’s all about grooming an ‘educated’ internal image, even if it turns out to be a goofy joke to anyone who really understands the other language.
The photo in the initial post was taken in the Central Business District, a focus of international engagement. The billboard is hardly a “best foot forward” representation of international awareness and worldly cool. In reality, it is quite the opposite. But then again, what better location for a joke – the high walls surrounding the perpetual CCTV Building project. The problem here is that the first rule of humor is that it’s always better to tell a joke than it is to be one.
I won’t even begin to deal with the round-eyed pixie. That’s not even a joke. That’s what’s known as cliché.