Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lost in Translation

World Journal, a popular Chinese Newspaper in US, published a few stories recently about Chinglish or Chinese English.   Since English is the most popular language used worldwide, it is not surprising one would find plenty of examples of Chinglish in places like China whose status is rapidly rising on the world stage. 

The oldest Chinglish expression I can recall was “long time no see” which is an example of a low prestige Pidgin English and a word by word literal translation of the common Mandarin Chinese greeting 好久不.  By the way, language prestige is a sociolinguistic concept that has been used to study, among others, what happens when a language comes into contact with another.  Pidgin is not a native language of any community.  It is essentially a simplified low prestige language which is created impromptu, often in trade, by necessity to help communications between people who do not have other common media.  You probably have seen it appeared in Hollywood movies when American Indians talked with White Men. 

In general, when two languages have equal or similar power or prestige came into contact, they naturally shared some elements and influenced each other.  There are obvious “word borrowing” especially when a notion simply did not exist in a society.  In English, you may find examples like coolie, typhoon, tea, lose face, brainwash, paper tiger, etc. which were incorporated from Chinese.  At the opposite direction, you would find examples like, 派对, 沙拉, 三明治, 幽默 (show, party, salad, salad, sandwich, humor, respectively) which were originated from English.  The last one is particularly interesting. It is a masterful translation by renowned writer Lin Yutang 林語堂 in early 20th century that captured both the pronunciation and the mood of “humor”.  I have always been wondering however why wasn’t there a native Chinese expression for it?  Were Chinese always so serious?

Not too surprisingly, the world has experienced in numerous occasions when two or more languages of different prestige come into contact with each other.  In many cases, creole languages were born where parent languages were nativized or fused together to form a new and stable language.  Typically the grammar of the new language came from the subordinated group of lower prestige and the vocabulary came from that of the dominant group. Prominent and surviving examples include the Jamaican Creole which is a result of superimposing largely English words on West African grammar and Haitian Creole which is a result of mixing French vocabulary with West African grammar.  Both were results of European colonial expansions.  

The most fascinating creole language is probably Singlish, a colloquial Singaporean English.  As an immigrant city state of diverse cultural backgrounds with about 70% Chinese descendants, one finds the Singlish syntax similar to Southern Chinese and vocabulary coming primarily from English mixed in with Chinese (in particular, Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese), Malay, Tamil, Bengali, and Punjabi.  The evolution of Singlish is continuing.  Most recently it has incorporated more words from Mandarin Chinese (through formal education), American and Australian slang (through films and TV programs) and Japanese (through Anime).   To get a feel for Singlish, below is a funny post on an overseas Singaporean forum.   

“Aiyah- your blogpsot ah, velly funnee leh.  Question ah - ni cai na li?
I ah, come from same country like you lor. I miss talking cock, eating spicy food and sure proud of my Singlish one . Aiyooo - all this “talk proper English"- kepala sakit ! Why ah? Must be proud leh -we understand each other why make problem one? Of course we talk proper with other not from Singapore- must lah- otherwise ah,very geram to them! They look like they get lost or takut one after they hear you talk Singlish to them. Sayang lah ( Also velly funneee to see).
But to each other .... ok what...right or not? You understand me, I understand you - where got problem?
Like I say ah, you must be velly proud leh, to be like us Singaporean, we can adapt well leh, to anything lor- so long ah, as we remain close with our loved ones back home. We are Singapore - hear me ROOAARRRR lah!!!”

If you want to get a concentrated and life dose of Singlish, you can watch a Singaporean movie. A good choice would be its all-time highest-grossing film – the 1998 comedy Money No Enough. 

Singlish illustrates how languages can be mixed and evolved to make communications possible amongst people from very different social and cultural background.  At the same time, it also illustrates language shift and possible extinction in real time as well as the development of “bad” English and Mandarin Chinese.  Note English was only made the first language of Singapore at the declaration of its independence in 1965 and the Speak Mandarin Campaign wasn’t launched till Sept 1979.  

As a high prestige language, Chinese language has had huge influence on East and Southeast Asia languages in history.  Chinglish is hopefully a transient issue due to ignorance and laziness in the process of translation from one high prestige language to another.  Two frequently cited examples of botched translation of road signs are:  施工進行Construction in Progress, and小心滑倒Be Careful of Slipping.  The powerful but less than perfect Google Translate did it correctly in the former and did not make silly mistakes like “Execution in Progress” that has been widely circulated on Internet.  But Google Translate failed in the latter (which was translated to Carefully Slip!)  Did the sign maker use Google Translate?)

The former in fact alerts us a more serious problem.  It is a bad Chinese, in the first place.  Professor Yu Guangzhong余光中, one of the most accomplished contemporary writer, poet and critic discussed in his June 11th commencement speech at the National Sun Yat-Sen University about the contamination of Chinese language by English.   Following his cue, a far better and elegant expression of the sign would be to eliminate the redundant phrase 進行and simply says施工中 which was what I used to see when I was young.  If Chinese don’t treasure and practice good Chinese, how could one just blame it on other languages like English?

On the lighter side, to get more laughs, you can visit any of the many websites that are devoted to Chinglish. is one of them which has a good collection and shows the correct usage and translation.  Have fun and stay pure!

Talk to you soon!

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