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Mandarin Myths

timesexthingSeenox (it bills itself as “the ultimate time waster website,” so you have been warned) offers yet another compilation of signs in China with hilariously botched English translations. An obscene instruction about what to do with vegetables; menus listing “roasted husband” and “fresh crap”; a portable “EXECUTION IN PROGRESS” sign for janitors to use; 40 of the usual suspects are there. But they are introduced by a passage containing two myths about Mandarin Chinese. One is that Mandarin is “the most spoken language in the world with around two billion speakers,” English coming in third with only 300 million-400 million speakers. The other is that translation between Mandarin and English is very hard.

There is no way Mandarin has two billion speakers. The government of the People’s Republic of China tends to overstate the figure for political reasons (because Mandarin is supposed to be the state’s pan-China lingua franca). But the China Daily (December 26, 2004) published the results of a survey of language use in the PRC showing only 53 percent of the population having an ability to communicate in standard Chinese. That would be 690 million people able to use Mandarin, at most. Success in using Mandarin is very important for employment and preferment in China, so in self-report surveys people doubtless boast about even a halting and imperfect command of it.

And as for English ranking third with 300-400 million speakers? I don’t think so. (I suppose Spanish is the alleged number 2, but that’s also not true.) English has about 400 million native speakers, but between one and two billion total users around the world; and perhaps more importantly it is becoming a genuine world language. It is an official language under the constitutions or governmental regulations of something like 85 countries around the world. Chinese has nothing like this degree of ubiquity. Apart from the People’s Republic and Taiwan (which of course the PRC claims is just a renegade part of PRC territory anyway), only the city-state of Singapore uses Chinese as a recognized official language. You cannot expect to go around the world conducting business in Mandarin. (Nor will this ever change as long as Chinese continues to be burdened by the most disastrously cumbersome writing system on the planet.)

Nonetheless, the translatability claim isn’t true either, despite all the photos of hilarious signs. Trained human beings do excellent translations between Chinese and English without any more difficulty than is found with any other pair. The myth of translation difficulty is driven by a stubborn tradition within China of not giving a damn: of assuming that translation is straightforward and mechanical, and that post-editing by a competent human is never needed. “Chinglish” signs are the result.

Some have probably been constructed through simple dictionary look-up, uninformed by any knowledge of English grammar. Others are the result of trusting the output of dumb statistical machine-translation programs. More than once people have photographed signs on which the English translation reads Translate server error: The error message was simply copied off a computer that produced no translation at all.

I am not sure whether Chinese sign-writers need no recourse to competent native speakers, or whether they long for them but have no way to find them. But they operate as if they assumed translation were mechanical and routine and easy.

Polysemy is the main spanner in the works. Human languages seem to love having phonological forms that bear multiple meanings. Neither Chinese nor English is unusual in this regard. Simple English words like post or charge have a dozen meanings or more. And in Mandarin the syllable gan, when pronounced with the fourth tone, can be translated by about 20 different English words, including “do,” “work,” “dry,” “manage,” “shield,” “embarrass,” “trunk,” “competent,” “go bad,” plus a four-letter obscene word meaning “copulate with,” banned here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Machine translation programs and untutored Chinese-to-English dictionary users in China often, inexplicably, pick the last of these rather than a more appropriate sense.

Translating Chinese into English by taking the first English equivalent listed in a Chinese-English dictionary for each word, and stringing them together without asking a native speaker whether the result makes sense, is a virtual guarantee of amusing gibberish and occasional outrageous obscenities. The fact that in China this happens thousands of times a day has nothing to do with the language itself being hard to translate. There are hard-to-translate texts (e.g. Joyce’s Ulysses), and there are careless and incompetent translators; but I don’t think there are any inherently hard-to-translate human languages.

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