Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and translation is playing an incredibly important role in the city’s preparations. On March 27, 2018, the city’s government launched the “2018 Online Correction of Erroneous Public Sign Translations,” a kind of call to action to citizens of the world to help improve the accuracy of public signs that are translated into English. The initiative is quite genius, if you think about it – how many times have you been traveling only to notice that easy, simple translations (think extremely common menu items, for example) are misspelled or translated completely incorrectly. It begs the question as to how something so simple can go unnoticed. How could a business owner invest in getting menus printed without double checking the language?
Well, the city of Beijing has figured out that it is worth it to invest in getting signs right the first time around. While some of the erroneous translations are admittedly hilarious, it doesn’t bode well for a municipal government when they can’t get the most basic English translations correct. So how does the system work? Participants can submit photos of signs they notice with poorly written English to the official WeChat account, beijingqianlong. Then, prizes will be given to the best, most efficiently provided translations.
English is of ever-growing importance in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, and as the Chinese are never wont to do things halfway, the effort to clean up some of the hilarious English signage that abounds is a great one. In researching this article, I came across some great “English” signs. Here are some of my favorites:
- “No Watchling When Walking”
- “Racist Park”
- “Don’t Bother”
- “To Take Notice of Safe the Slippery Are Very Crafty”
- “Shoplifters Will be Prostituted”
The list really is endless.
Together with the public sign-improvement exercise, Qianglong Net will publish a series of articles explaining China’s translation standardizations and common errors that take place when translating from Chinese to English. The aim of the articles will be to create greater awareness regarding the more common translating mistakes and will help members of the public identify said mistakes more easily.
As of December 1, 2017, 13 public service sectors in Beijing, including traffic, tourism, culture, entertainment, sports, education, healthcare, postal, telecoms, F&B, hospitality, commerce and finance, have been covered by national translation standards. The standards detail terminology commonly used in each sector and their correct English counterparts.
As a country, China spends billions of dollars annually on English language learning, yet continuously ranks at the bottom of the list of countries with enhanced English proficiency, both internationally and in Asia. While decades ago the booming Chinese population may have been cause for worry about the world’s next lingua franca, English has held strong as the international language of commerce and remains a crucial component for economic growth. English proves important in emerging economies like Russia, China and Brazil, yet China continues to lag.
Initiatives like Beijing’s sign changing context show the Chinese government’s awareness regarding the importance of English for its population. In China, English language is a required subject in schools throughout the country. Many Chinese people are happy to maintain their own linguistic traditions while continuing to improve their other language skills. Measures like the sign initiative are just some of the ways that China is engaging its population and helping mobilize their interest in improving language skills overall, while at the same time serving as a more hospitable environment for foreign visitors.
Of course, Beijing is pulling out all the stops as 2022 approaches. Besides new and improved English signs, we should look forward to seeing incredible Olympic facilities, and some very impressive opening and closing ceremonies. At least we’ll be able to follow the signs to get there!