The Magazine

Feudal to Translate

A guide to the English dialect spoken only in China.

Mar 31, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 28 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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Found in Translation

by Oliver Lutz Radtke

Gibbs Smith, 112 pp., $7.95

Virginia Woolf once wrote that "humor is the first gift to perish in a foreign language."

Of course, Mrs. Woolf couldn't know about 21st-century Shanghai, where people communicate in a foreign language to side-splitting effect, day after day. The foreign language, in this case, is English--or more accurately, "Chinglish." This term means different things to different people, but for the purposes of Oliver Lutz Radtke's new book, it refers to the delightfully awkward, syntax-defying, and at times purple prose found on English-language signs, clothing, and packaging in China. Radtke, a German sinologist, first came up with the idea for a book on Chinglish while studying at Shanghai Foreign Languages University.

Like Radtke, I, too, find myself tickled by the abundant examples of not-quite-English to be found in China. As I write, I am sitting in an upscale wine bar in downtown Shanghai. Janis Joplin is playing softly in the background, and in the din of other patrons' conversation I can make out French, Chinese, and, of course, English. A sign hangs in the doorway: "Take care of your belongings before you leave the restaurants."

So far as I can tell, Chinglish falls into two categories: instrumental and ornamental. Instrumental Chinglish is actually intended to convey information to English speakers. Ornamental Chinglish is born of the fact that English is the lingua franca of coolness. Meaning aside, any combination of roman letters elevates a commodity--khaki pants, toilet paper, potato chips--to a higher plane of chic by suggesting that the product is geared toward an international audience.

In Hong Kong I once saw a teenage girl wearing a red baby-doll T-shirt emblazoned with rhinestone lettering that read: "mom, i'm a lesbian." In wearing this T-shirt, the young lady probably did not intend to announce her homosexuality to her mother--or to the world, for that matter. The English on her shirt served a decorative function; the letters were intended to convey no more meaning than paisley or houndstooth.

Similarly, I have in my purse a packet of moist towelettes called "HARASS" wipes. It is possible that the manufacturers wish to associate their brand with harassment as a marketing strategy, but it is more likely that a mid-level executive in Wuhan saw the word "harass" in the blurb of a pirated DVD copy of the 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller Enough and thought that it looked to be as good a word as any to slap on a pack of towelettes.

As for instrumental Chinglish, look no further than bustling People's Square, the heart of Shanghai. The neighborhood swarms with foreign tourists, any one of whom might be curious about the history of beautiful People's Park. Recognizing that a good chunk of those who pass through People's Park may not speak Chinese, the Shanghai Municipality on Administration of Public Parks has thoughtfully provided the following English signage:

Intrudaction Park
People's Park built in 1952 Beginning re built on 2000FEB. And opening on July 1. Thearea of the part is 10million/mIt is keep old Haiting Park. Characteristic. It has new Yulan park.Health park and Founcain. and so on.

This illuminating intrudaction is followed by a list of "Rulers for visitors." Some highlights:

.  .  . public meeting or fund-raising Of any nature is inexpedient, activities of a feudalistic and superstitious nature .  .  . are not allowed

Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare, or capture bird, cricket, fish and shrimp or cicada (exceptthose for community purposes).

Ethic and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or shit .  .  .

Like all great specimens of literature, these "Rulers for visitors" excite the reader's imagination, opening the mind to new possibilities and questions. Would it be possible to concurrently break all three of the rules listed above? Surely there is something feudalistic to be done with crickets, but urinating or defecating might be difficult to work into the mix.

Unfettered from the constraint of knowing English, many Chinese take the language to new heights. A local seafood joint, Fishiness Infinitude, is a prime example. I defy anyone to visit this establishment and come up with a more appropriate name.