MANY expats in Shanghai will be pleased about a new campaign to standardize the use of English and other foreign languages to make the city friendlier to foreigners.
This drive is long overdue, though it may be a minor disappointment to lovers of “Chinglish,” the Sinofied version of sometimes comical and often unintelligible English often found at shops, restaurants and other public venues.
The problem of confusing and often mangled English is due to several factors, notably lack of access to native speakers for many venues that aim to provide English menus, literature and other materials for foreign visitors.
Still, it’s important for big cities like Shanghai to gradually clean up these problematic translations, which often have a small-town laughable quality that detracts from the city’s quest for international recognition.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Shanghai seems to have largely excluded foreign participation in the drafting for its new “Rules Governing the Use of Foreign Languages in Public Venues.”
After reading about the effort in Chinese media, I went to the city’s main Chinese-language website and found a place for the public to provide input on the draft rules. But there was no mention of the plan at all on the city’s English website, meaning most foreigners have little or no way to make suggestions on this important new initiative.
In all fairness, I have to say that most English translations in official Shanghai venues are reasonably correct, drawing on the city’s vast resources and easy access to the more than 200,000 expatriates.
But the city’s many shops, restaurants and other privately owned venues lack similar access, with the result that they often end up creating flawed English menus on their own, perhaps with the help of other non-native speakers.
Nearly every foreigner in China has his or her own favorite Chinglish signs, and I’m certainly no exception. A visiting Singaporean friend and I began laughing uncontrollably while at a restaurant whose English menu had comically translated all the dishes literally from their poetic Chinese names. An embarrassed waiter finally came over and took away our menus.
The menu at a Sichuan restaurant chain where I often dine has an especially entertaining item on the menu, titled “porn pie.” Of course, the word should be “pork,” not “porn,” but only someone who can read the original Chinese would realize that. Another favorite is a sign I once spotted at a milk tea shop. It contained the puzzling and somewhat feudal line, “My drinking controlled by my serf,” meaning “myself,” which is still a bit odd.
The list goes on.
China should be praised for its hospitality and efforts to make the country more accessible to foreigners. After all, it’s not very common to find Chinese signs in the US or Europe, even though they are usually grammatically correct when they do occur.
I don’t know what the new Shanghai regulation will contain, since there was no draft version that I could find on the website. But I suggest the city not only regularize its own procedures for translating signs, but also provide translation resources to its many private businesses.
An effective approach would be setting up an online resource where anyone could find native speakers to translate for a fee.
After all, many private shops and restaurants don’t get good translations simply because they don’t have access to native speakers.
The city would have to promote the service to ensure that everyone knows about it. That kind of coordinated effort could help Shanghai to become a model for the rest of China in the slow but necessary clean up of Chinglish.
While some expats may mourn the loss of this entertaining Sinofied language, many more will be pleased and relieved to find signs and other materials that are informative, rather than confusing and comical.