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Poor translation targeted in confusing signs of the times

Su Zhou and Luo Wangshu
Updated: Mar 13,2015 6:59 AM     China Daily

Foreign visitors are sometimes confused by hilarious or unfortunate translations on signs in public areas in China.

Such translations include “a time sex thing”, seen in a grocery store, which refers to disposable products.

Now a political adviser has proposed that the government should release a standard guideline for appropriate translation.

According to the adviser, Tang Jin, poor translations on public signs are harmful to China’s international image.

Tang is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a senior official of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, in Hubei province.

He has found many problems with translations on public signs, especially those from Chinese to English.

“For instance, ‘no mobile phone allowed’ is translated only as ‘no da shou ji’; ‘service to corporate customers’ becomes ‘to male business’,” Tang wrote in the proposal, adding that appropriate translation of public signs is an essential component of public culture.

Tang suggested that government departments such as the China International Publishing Group could collect commonly used public signs in major cities and tourism sites nationwide and provide a standard translation for guidance.

Ma Huijuan, a professor of translation studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, agreed, saying that public sign translation is a “message to communicate with foreigners”. A country’s international image always lies with the details, she added.

According to a widespread story among translators in Beijing, poor public sign translations were linked to Beijing failing in its first attempt to host the Olympic Games in 2000.

Officials from the International Olympic Committee saw a public sign stating “Racist Park” when they landed in the capital, according to the translators.

“The city and the whole country have made big progress on public sign translation since 2008,” Ma said, adding that the municipal government has invested in setting up a public sign translation center at Beijing International Studies University.

Ma said that confusion also exists online when some companies use roughly translated English on their Chinese-language websites.

Alistair Michie, adviser to the Foreign Experts Advisory Committee under the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, said the Beijing municipal government should improve ways to boost the city’s image and communicate with its foreign residents and visitors.

“The Internet is an immensely powerful tool with which to communicate with foreigners. The Visit Beijing website has improved in recent years, but much could be done to give it a really powerful impact,” Michie said.

“Too often there are assumptions about Chinese culture in material that foreigners are totally ignorant about. There is a need for a much smarter approach to boost the appeal of Beijing.”

Former culture minister Cai Wu said, “China is at a primary stage regarding international cultural communication”, adding that efforts must be made in many areas, including training translators.

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