Amid Shanghai’s ongoing preparations for the inaugural China International Import Expo in November, the city authorities recently launched a series of intensive checks of public signs and advertisements to save foreign visitors from becoming “lost in translation”.
About 120 language experts and municipal officials supervised language use in key public places, including airports, harbors and hotels.
“These places are where inbound foreigners first get a glimpse of a city or even a country,” said Chai Mingjiong, honorary president of the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University.
“The inspection acted as a vital measure to building a civilized environment for the upcoming expo and achieving the city’s goal of becoming a global hub of excellence.”
According to Chai, the main mistakes on public signs and ads in English are incorrect grammar, misspellings and “Chinglish”, poor translations of Chinese into English that often feature inappropriate wording.
For instance, “staff only” is often rendered as “no personnel no entrance”, while “first and last trains” is often translated as “first last train”.
In addition to word correction, authorities also standardized the translation of frequently used words or phrases. For example, the city uses “metro” instead of “subway” in related areas, and “check-in”, a phrase mistakenly used in railway stations, has been modified to “ticket check”.
Incorrectly written or mispronounced Chinese characters have been corrected, and stores in key scenic spots are now obliged to use simplified characters instead of traditional ones.
“Things have been improving since 2009 when the city introduced a standard on the Chinese-English translation of terms in public places to regulate translations. A few mistakes still exist, though,” said Ling Xiaofeng, director of the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use.
In 2015, the city enacted China’s first local government regulation related to the appropriate use of foreign languages, and established an online platform that allows people to obtain correct translations and report inaccurate ones.
In April, the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use and the Shanghai Volunteer Association jointly established a volunteer team called Woodpecker to check and report poor translations on signs and encourage public participation in the process.
According to Ling, the city will continue to check on poor language use, especially in 87 buildings along the landmark Huangpu River and at several national A-grade scenic spots.
However, not every resident finds poor translations annoying.
“I love seeing bad English in a foreign country. It’s a reminder that this is an emerging society where cultures are blending together,” said Suzanne Calton, a United States national who has lived in China for 10 years.