Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Civilized Chaoyang II

April 26th, 2010 · 2 Comments

(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.

Tags: CCTV · language

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nick // Apr 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Amen and a half.

    Being the native English speaker and translator, I haven’t found any particularly successful way to convince my erstwhile clients of this. They just find it impossible to believe that the English is possibly that. bad. And the absurd quality of bargain-basement translation is just unfathomable to these people. “Well how could they stay in business if they don’t maintain at least some standard of intelligibility?” Ha. There’s no national ratings system, no inspections, and no recourse for bad translation. And there’s always another English department grad desperate for a job and clients looking for a cheaper rate. I recently translated the instruction manual for a video-on-demand service in hotels – they wanted me to translate their onscreen menu at first, which barely amounted to 100 characters, but they sent the brochure as a reference. It was the stereotypical train wreck, but since I know several people in other departments in this company, I felt like it was worth trying to convince them not to embarrass themselves like that. The thing is, this was a service that had content in English and Chinese, and it will be offered in premium hotels in Beijing, so they translated it (rightly) with the expectation that both Chinese and foreigners will use it. But to convince them that I couldn’t understand it took four emails from my friends to the head of that particular department. Later, when I finally got into the boss’s office to explain the problem, I found out that they paid 300 RMB for 4000 characters of content. My lowest rates are usually orders of magnitude higher than that.

    I’m beginning to think there’s no solution but a systemic one. Translators and English-language speakers, at some point in the future, will have to organize some kind of public education campaign or organization to deal with this perception and normalize prices. I’m certainly willing to lower my rates a bit if I can guarantee a supply of steady work, but the only way that will happen is if people realize how bad English effects our perception of them, and changing those attitudes is like preaching Ojibwe legends to the House of Saud.

  • 2 Getting tired of being Civilised – Chaoyang, Beijing // Aug 3, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    […] borne huge billboards with the slogan “Civilized Chaoyang, Magnificent With Me”. This is a poor translation of the Chinese that implies something like “Chaoyang is a classy, cultured, and exciting place, and that […]

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