Hyphen is happy to introduce our most newly minted blogger: Victoria Yue. Victoria grew up in Northern Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, majoring in English and minoring in Art. Heeding the siren call of activism and negative 30-degree weather, she received her M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University and now works as a communications specialist at an office supply company in Chicago, where she takes great pride in asking deeply probing questions about laminators and writing run-on sentences. Victoria knows a lot about giraffes, the Kardashians, Harry Potter, and ways to prevent scurvy.
Admit it: you let out a giggle when you saw a cautionary sign translated to read “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don’t Disturb It.” And you smirked at the above.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. A recent story in the New York Times about these misfired Chinese-to-English translations, known as “Chinglish,” reigned supreme on the news site the first week of May.
While there’s no way to tell the demographics of the readers doing the sending, one thing is clear: the story and its accompanying slideshow stayed on NYT’s Most Emailed list for a week. In fact, the slideshow was so popular, the NYT came back a week later with a reader-generated photo gallery called “Strange Signs from Abroad.”
As an Asian American, my reaction to the original article went something like this:
- Laughed (but quietly, because I was at work)
- Felt guilty about laughing (also, because I was at work)
- Went through the slideshow twice, trying to remember any mistranslations that I had encountered on my trips to Taiwan
- Sent it to my friends
The reactions were mixed. One of my college roommates, an Asian American, found it funny but also embarrassing. She pointed out that the article was similar to Engrish.com -- and also, the My Mom/Dad is a Fob websites -- which serves to chronicle language and cultural mishaps that are by turns endearing, hilarious and humiliating.
But why does bad English bring out such different responses in us?
I think a big thing is the source of the content.
It’s like this: Say you have a slightly embarrassing household object, like a deformed vase or something. Despite the fact that it’s a hideous vase, you have some inexplicable affection for it. You find the Ugly Vase Community Blog and post pictures of your horrible vase and share a good laugh with other people who own ugly vases, too.
But then, say, someone who did not have an ugly vase took pictures of your vase through a window and posted those pictures on a mainstream site. “This is hilarious,” they say in the caption. “This vase doesn’t even make any sense!” Do you still think it’s funny? After all, it’s still the same vase. Or do you feel a little uneasy that someone from outside your vase community is laughing at your vase for all the world to see?
I think that’s why the NYT article can make Asian Americans feel uncomfortable or guilty in a way that My Mom is a Fob does not. With the latter, the content comes from within the Asian American community and so becomes a form of bonding and empathy. But the former is posted on a major news site with the purpose of laughing at the content. I’m sure the good folks at the NYT didn’t mean to be offensive, but the article and the responses it elicits can sit uncomfortably with some viewers because it reads like an outsider looking in.
In the US, confused tourists are often treated with an attitude of “Know English if you’re going to come here.” So why is it that when Americans travel, there is this expectation for other countries to know English? Several readers who contributed photos to the second slideshow acknowledged that, aside from the English translation, they couldn’t read in the original language of the sign. The English on signs exists almost solely to aid travelers and tourists. Is it still funny if strangers from other countries mocked our attempts to help them with their travels?
But that’s just me. What are your thoughts on Chinglish? And do you think it’s reasonable to expect non-English speaking countries to have perfect English on their public signage?
Sound off -- but quietly. The little grass is sleeping.
Read the story and check out the slideshows here:
Shanghai is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish
A Sampling of Chinglish - Slideshow
Strange Signs from Abroad - Slideshow