Photo: A Thoroughly Befuddling Tent Tag

If you travel, without question you’ve had your share of experiences with “Chinglish,” or other corrupted forms of the English language. After all, there are books and websites devoted to this stuff. But while trekking in Bolivia last month, I discovered an entirely new form of linguistic weirdness, in the form of a tag on my (outfitter-supplied) tent.

It was a brand I’d never heard of, called Alpkit, and the tent had no information as to its origin. You can imagine my befuddlement upon reading this after a full day of trekking at 15,000 feet. I thought perhaps I was hallucinating.

Now that I’m home, I’ve discovered that Alpkit is a UK outfitter, and upon reviewing their site, I realize the above is entirely tongue-in-cheek. That doesn’t make it any less amusing. Here’s to more gear manufacturers having a sense of humor.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

Shanghai taking steps to correct funny Engrish signs

For years, Chinese signs have been a fantastic source of comedy.

Entire sites have been created
around the humorous translations used in signs, and while some are just plain stupid, others have become Internet sensations, pulling in millions of viewers.

That may all come to an end soon in Shanghai. Officials in the city have assembled a team of volunteers who will check signs, and report incorrect translations to the authorities. Those signs will then have to be removed and/or corrected.

The increase in poorly spelled signs can be blamed on poor translation software and poor user input. In fact, incorrect use of translation software can even result in really stupid signs like this one.

Whether the efforts in Shanghai will result in perfectly translated signs remains to be seen – similar campaigns in Beijing back in 2002 and 2006 have not resulted in a decrease of funny signs.

Thankfully, the Chinese are not alone in the world of stupid signage, as you can see on this Welsh sign.

An academic discussion of Chinglish

It’s China China China 24/7 these days, and I’m shamelessly jumping on the bandwagon. One of my favorite blogs, James Fallows’ at The Atlantic, has started to take a a rather sharp-witted at the phenomenon of Chinglish, or poorly translated English by the Chinese.

He recently presented a counter-example, in which Westerners sport nonsensical tattoos of Chinese characters. This site should give you a flavor of the hilarity that ensues.

Anyways, for his analysis of the situation, along with a few funny photos of mistranslations he encounters, see here, here, and here.

And for the ultimate in laughs, you can’t afford to miss out on No more description needed.

A Canadian in Beijing: Charmed by Chinglish

A few years ago, I had a running joke with a friend of mine about being “grammar police.” We used to lament not having a large stack of magic markers (of various colours and thicknesses) stashed in our bags or our vehicles at all times. These markers would be for quietly replacing missing apostrophes, for example, found on public signs or missing quotations, periods, question marks. Generally, we bonded over punctuation (yet another side of my geek self) but we would also stray into the territory of spelling once in awhile and report sightings of commonly misspelled words. In our policing fantasy, we would employ our arsenal or markers to reverse common spelling errors, as well, thus making the reading world a “safer” place.

I think this fantasy has been entirely cured here in China.

Everywhere I go in this city, I see English misspelled and/or misused. This is affectionately called “Chinglish” here (combination of Chinese and English) and I love it.

I recently saw a mistake on an official cover of a thick, glossy, fashion magazine that had purchased subway banner ads lining the walls of one of the subway stops. Picturing a gorgeous Hollywood star (who I couldn’t identify) and assuming they were boasting that this issue featured coverage of the ‘Best Bodies in Hollywood,’ the caption read: “Hollywood Specialty Bodies.”

I scratch my head and smile.Here in Beijing, there’s a movement to correct the English in advance of the Olympics. In fact, they’re talking about setting up a hotline to report English mistakes on official signs around the city and they hope to have the English cleaned up by the end of 2007. (This article notes some fantastic bloopers.)

I’m wondering how often this hotline will be called. My desire to correct signs dwindled when the task started to seem too vast. I have even seen engravings that are incorrect – marble and bronze alike. There’s very little one can do in these cases; those English errors are forever set in stone!

Of course, the errors aren’t just written errors. When I first took the subway, I was amazed that the recorded voice was in both English and Chinese. I did notice right away that the Chinese was more complete than the English, but that’s okay with me. I mean, we (as travellers) don’t really need all the additional polite commentary that follows the identification of the next stop: “if you are getting off at [the next station] please prepare for your arrival.” The only part that is translated is “the next station is…” and that’s all one really needs.

The part that I noticed was incorrect is when Line 13 ends and all passengers are expected to disembark and/or transfer to Line 2. The voice says: “Thank you for taking Beijing Subway. Welcome to take this line on your next trip. Have a nice day.” It’s completely clear what is meant, but the absence of a “the” before “Beijing” in the first sentence has now started to sound normal to my ears, not to mention the absence of “you’re” to start the second sentence.

All this started me thinking about the difficulties that English presents. The word “welcome” is commonly used on its own or to start a sentence like “Welcome to Beijing” or “Welcome to China.” It’s no wonder that this mistake is repeatedly made here because it is minor and hardly blurs the meaning. In fact, I barely notice it now and I may even come home speaking this way if I’m not careful!

In a more non-official light, clothing here is regularly covered in misspelled, illogical and/or completely ridiculous English, so much so that it’s sometimes funny. At the market a few weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt because it made me smile with its mixed up English. The front is just fun and says “Flashy Carnival” but the back? Well, it’s bizarre. My favourite line on the back is “everybody loves to be freedom.” I figured I needed to sport such a shirt, especially back home where people will read it and respond with a twisted look that tells me that they’re trying to solve my t-shirt’s riddle. I’ll have to laugh at these expressions and explain that I bought the shirt in China where t-shirts in English rarely make sense!

Years ago when I was studying Chinese in Canada, a friend of mine told me that the new wave of fashion in North America featuring Chinese characters also rarely made sense. I started to look closely at t-shirts with characters on them and I found that she was absolutely correct. She said that she’d see just jumbled Chinese characters on people’s shirts all the time and it was clearly just about the “style” and not the meaning.

Of course, that’s in reverse here. Tit for Tat.

Speaking of tats… we all know about those misused Chinese characters tattooed on people’s arms in North America. In fact, there are a few websites (like this one) devoted to the discussion of these lost-in-translation tattoo mistakes. Well, I’m happy to say that I have yet to see misspelled English on any Chinese flesh. Another point for China!

One of my favourite repetitive English errors is at the ATM machines. When you select “English” as your language of choice, everything is fine until the very end when the machine asks you if you’d like a “printed advice.” I looked at this carefully the first time, wondering if the machine was actually going to advise me about my financial situation. I thought, “An electronic financial advisor? How cool!” Of course, I realized quickly that they meant “invoice” or “receipt” here and it’s just been poorly translated. Still, I eagerly press “Yes” every time in hopes that I may one day get some advice from an ATM machine.

Even my text book (which includes English translations for the grammar sections) will often have errors. If not errors, it will have a jumbled set of sentences that lose meaning rather quickly. I have to chuckle to myself when I read them. I’m learning to just read the grammatical explanations in Chinese if I really want to understand what’s going on!

All in all, I’d be interested to hear follow-up about this attempt to reform the English signage here in Beijing. I’m wondering if anyone will really call and report the errors. Really, I wouldn’t bother. It’s fine with me. It’s part of the whole experience here and I’m (gratefully) no longer anal about these things. In fact, I am occasionally amused by the mistakes and that extra bit of humour in my day is something that I’ll never complain about.

In general, I appreciate even the little bits of English clarity that appear around the city. I see it as a welcoming gesture of kindness and nothing more.

Who cares if it’s perfect?

(Well, besides the Olympics committee. . .)

It’s more fun when it’s not.

Vanishing Chinglish

China will never be the same; at least Beijing, that is. As the Olympics approach, a quasi-government group in Beijing has set out to correct the city’s English menus and signs.

The WSJ just ran an article detailing these efforts: to date, for example, these language cops from the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program have replaced 6,300 road signs with often odd, sometimes downright hilarious, English phrasing, the result of bad translations.

We’ll definitely miss the restroom signs saying “Genitl Emen” (aka, gentlemen), such great attractions as the “Beijing Hospital for Anus and Intestinal Disease” (aka Hospital of Proctology), and street signs telling us “To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty” (aka, be careful: slippery). Or, “Little grass is smiling slightly, Please walk on pavement” (aka ?).

Fortunately, we’ll still be able to relive the good ol’ days on various websites, such as, flickr’s chinglish pool,, and google images, of course. Any other good collections out there, dear readers?