Lost in Translation: Chinglish For The Masses

When my baby brother was learning to talk, he spoke a hybrid of English and Chinese. It used to confuse the hell out of friends who would lose the thread when he switched from Chinese to English and then back again but for us it was seamless.

We thought we were being clever labeling it Chinglish but apparently we didn’t invent the phrase.

I saw this word used in the title of an article in the New York Times online and I had to read it. Apparently what we thought of as Chinglish is not quite right.

It’s much funnier.

Chinglish is obviously an amalgam of Chinese and English and refers to the wonky translation from the former to the latter, often eliciting amusement or ire depending on one’s viewpoint. Does that make me more Canadian than Chinese?

There was a huge campaign to fix errant signs in advance of the Beijing Olympics and there has been another push in Shanghai for Expo 2010- I guess the idea is to inform people, not make them fall over with laughter.

I “lifted” a menu once because the description of an item had to be preserved- if I can find it, I’ll take a photo and repost later. You see it all the time in Chinatown but I never thought it was a problem.

Even more interesting is that one could pursue a doctoral degree in Chinglish- way to go University of Heidelberg. I guess if you can offer university courses on the Buffyverse, why not Chinglish?

For some fantastic examples, check this slideshow. I think pic number four might be my favourite.

One argument in favour of preserving this often amusing hybrid is that it gives a window into the mind of the Chinese. I am not a linguist but the study of language, in particular the study of meaning, fascinates.

I am not fluent in the dialect I speak so I often use an incorrect phrase that makes my Mom laugh and others cringe.

In the reverse, I am sometimes confounded by the accurate conveyance of meaning. Chinese phrases are often colourful, portraying a picture in a succinct turn while in English, it can be a bit unwieldy.

One phrase that does translate is “big mountain woman”= tall, big-boned, somewhat heavyset female. (Bear in mind, “heavyset” by Chinese standards is very different from North American standards- but that is a topic for another time.) While it may not be politically correct, do you not get a picture in your head when you hear the direct translation? Please don’t quibble with my translation skills. While Chinese is my first language, English is my dominant one (thank you Sesame Street).

I am sure there are funnies that come up in translating between other languages- it really would be a shame to lose those quirks in favour of homogeneity.

As long as we can all find a bathroom when we need one, what’s the harm?


~ by angryegg on May 5, 2010.

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