I recently read a very amusing article by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times about the erroneous English translations one finds on signs and in menus in China. He reports that the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use has been working overtime for the last two years to correct the most egregious errors in time for Expo 2010.
Approximately 10,000 public signs have been altered. Among the many laudable changes, the sign that once read “Dongda Anus Hospital” has been changed to “Dongda Proctology Hospital” and what was once known in English as “Racist Park” is now “Minorities Park”.
As any honest translator will tell you, translating for a restaurant is no piece of cake. The Shanghai language squad found some real zingers in local restaurant menus, from an exotic beverage hawked as “The Jew’s Ear Juice” to descriptions of extra-large size portions as “fatso” and “lard bucket” options. Some of the errors were pure poetry. My favorite was a cafeteria sign that read “The tableware reclaims a place” instead of “drop off dirty dishes here”.
You might ask why a qualified translator was not consulted in the first place, but even that route doesn’t assure 100% accuracy. A story that appeared in the BBC on-line is a perfect vindication of a proofreader’s worth. When the Swansea city council needed to translate “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” into Welsh to comply with an ordinance requiring bilingual signs, they dashed off an email to the translator who usually worked for them. After receiving a prompt reply, city employees ordered a bilingual sign based on the translator’s message and posted the sign at the junction of Clase Road and Pant-y-Blawd Road. Apparently no one involved in the process of preparing or erecting the sign was a fluent Welsh speaker and consequently no one understood the content of the translator’s email message, which was nothing more or less than: “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.
Recently the community of Madrid spent two million Euros on a publicity campaign promoting bilingual education that created a small scandal for its flagrant disregard for English grammar. Perhaps with the intention of imitating Barak Obama’s famous slogan “Yes, we can”, Adsolut, the agency contracted to create a slogan for the campaign, came up with “Yes, we want”, without adding any direct complement that might have made the phrase coherent. Considering the price tag for Adsolut’s creative input – 127,600 Euros – it’s really a shame that the firm didn’t hire a translator to vet the slogans under consideration. Not as humble, nor as linguistically zealous, as their governmental counterparts in China and Wales, the officials in Madrid responsible for the preposterous slogan defended it in the name of creativity and declared the project one of the best PSA campaigns carried out in recent years. I wonder if the kids of Madrid will be given the same benefit of the doubt when they make creative errors in their English exams.