Taiwan tries to untangle mangled (but fun) Chinglish

By Dan Bloom, The Wild East

Taiwan’s Commission for the Management of Language Use’s mission is to get rid of Chinglish, which irks fans of the island nation’s linguistic maladaptations

Photo: Trista di Genova
Photo: Trista di Genova
For English speakers with subpar Mandarin Chinese language skills, daily life in Taiwan offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”

Those who have had a bit too much monolithic tree mushroom stem squid could find themselves requiring roomier attire: extra-large sizes sometimes come in “fatso” or “lard bucket” categories. These and other fashions can be had at the clothing chain known as Scat.

Go ahead and snicker, but it’s true.

Taiwan is trying its best to get rid of uniquely Chinese language maladaptations of the English language which were supposed to have been largely excised. Not yet.

Fortified by an army of 600 volunteers of adroit English speakers, the commission has fixed more than 10,000 public signs (farewell “Teliot” and “urine district”), rewritten English-language historical placards and helped hundreds of restaurants recast offerings.

“The purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing,” said director general of the capital’s Foreign Affairs Office, has been leading the fight for linguistic standardization and sobriety.

But while the war on mangled English may be considered a signature achievement of government officials, aficionados of what is known as Chinglish are wringing their hands in despair.

Oliver Jean Marcel, a former French TV reporter who may well be the world’s second best authority on Chinglish, said he believed that Taiwan should embrace the fanciful melding of English and Chinese as the hallmark of a dynamic, living language. As he sees it, Chinglish is an endangered species that deserves preservation.

“If you standardize all these signs, you not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the park but you lose a window into the Taiwanese mind,” said Marcel, who is the author of a pair of picture books that feature giggle-worthy Chinglish signs in their natural habitat.

Lest anyone think it is all about laughs, he is pursuing a doctorate in Chinglish at the Sorbonne.

Still, the enemies of Chinglish say the laughter it elicits is humiliating.

Those who study the roots of Chinglish say many examples can be traced to laziness and a flawed but wildly popular translation software. A professor of Chinese said a computerized dictionary had led to sexually oriented vulgarities identifying dried produce in Chinese supermarkets and the regrettable “fried enema” menu selection that should have been rendered as “fried sausage.”

Although improved translation software and a growing zeal for grammatically unassailable English has slowed the output of new Chinglishisms, the prof said he still received about five new examples a day from expats in Taiwan who knew he was good at deciphering what went wrong. “If someone would pay me to do it, I’d spend my life studying these things,” he said.

Among those getting paid to wrestle with Chinglish is Jeffrey Mao, an English translator and teacher in Chiayi who is leading the nationwide sign exorcism. But even as he eradicates the most egregious examples by government fiat — businesses dare not ignore the commission’s suggested fixes — he has mixed feelings, noting that although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical.

“Some of it tends to be expressive, even elegant,” he said, shuffling through an online catalog of signs that were submitted by the volunteers who prowled Shanghai with digital cameras. “They provide a window into how we Taiwanese think about language.”

He offered the following example: While park signs in the West exhort people to “Keep Off the Grass,” Taiwanese versions tend to anthropomorphize nature as a way to gently engage the stomping masses. Hence, such admonishments as “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don’t Disturb It” or “Don’t Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain.”

He pointed out that this linguistic mentality helped create such expressions as “long time no see,” HA JYO BU CHIEN, a word-for-word translation of a Chinese expression that became a mainstay of spoken English.

But Mao, who spent nearly eight decades working as a translator in Boston, has his limits. To highlight the point, he showed a sign from a local park designed to provide visitors with the ground rules for entry, which include prohibitions on washing, “scavenging,” clothes drying and public defecation, all of it rendered in unintelligible — and in the case of the last item — rather salty English.

The sign ended with this humdinger: “Because if the tourist does not obey the staff to manage or contrary holds, Does, all consequences are proud.”

Even though he had had the sign corrected recently, Mao could not help but shake his head in disgust at the memory. And he was irritated to find that a raft of troublesome sign verbiage had slipped past the commission as the expo approached, including a cafeteria sign that read, “The tableware reclaims a place.” (Translation: drop off dirty dishes here.)

“Some Chinglish expressions are nice, but we are not translating literature here,” he said. “I want to see people nodding that they understand the message on these signs. I don’t want to see them laughing.”

[with a hat tip to Andrew Jacobs]

4 thoughts on “Taiwan tries to untangle mangled (but fun) Chinglish

  • January 21, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Hi Dan,
    Hey do you have the address for Olivier Jean Marcel? I’d like to send him my Teaching Inghelish in Taiwan as a hoot. Strangely can’t find your email in my list but my computer has been renegotiated recently so lost in cyberspace. I read your article, or a fragment of it in the ”student post”, had to figure out it was you who wrote it as they didn’t give you credit, which I found rather strange. Anyway, happy new year.

  • January 21, 2011 at 1:22 am

    It was in the student post and it was about a graduate student in France who was writing a positive dissertation about the dissemination of chinglish and its semiotic meanings in Taiwan. It was very funny, but there was no author, so I googled about and found your name attached to an article published in the China Post. Was it not You? The Frenchman’s name was Olivier something or other? Was this all google folly? In Canada now, but would still like to get the frenchman’s address because I agree with him and think it sad that Taiwan is sending out squadrons of red guard students to “correct” all the wonderful english poetry dotting taiwans parks, highways and byways.

  • May 26, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Mao Tse Tung referred to it as the rectification of names. There seems to be a little confusion in this article re Taiwan vs Mainland (Shanghai). Take this quote, for example: “And he was irritated to find that a raft of troublesome sign verbiage had slipped past the commission as the EXPO[sic] approached, including a cafeteria sign that read…”

    Are you writing about Taiwan’s Commission or the other?


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