Beijing Games: English on a winning streak

Beijing Games: English on a winning streak
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First Published: Mon, Feb 25 2008. 12 26 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Feb 25 2008. 12 26 AM IST
Come August, and all eyes will turn towards Beijing, the venue of the 2008 Olympics. The question we ask ourselves will be whether the US will retain its supremacy in the medal tally, or make way for China, which is competing on home ground.
Whoever wins the most laurels, there will be one champion who will come out victorious: the English language.
Laying aside parochial considerations, China is going full throttle at propagating English as the language of the Games. From the moment the mayor of Beijing addressed the International Olympic Committee in English and presented his city’s claim to conduct the 2008 Olympics, there has erupted what the Chinese call Yngwen re, or “English fever”, all over the country.
In the course of the last seven years, the English teaching programme in China has made considerable headway. But as the big day approaches, the organizers are facing new problems: These have to do with specimens of bad English in the public notices. Some of these announcements are incomprehensible, or confusing, or even comic. The city authorities have prepared translation manuals to be distributed in malls, on public transport and at tourist attractions.
The Games will attract at least 500,000 foreigners. To make them at home in Beijing, the organizers are keen on eliminating bad English in public announcements.
Among the specimens the tourism bureau has gathered are the following: An emergency exit in an airport says, “No entry on peacetime.” On Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, there is a warning that reads: “To Take Notice of Safe, The Slippery are Very Crafty”. This is a warning for automobile drivers to be careful on a slippery slope. Where we expect “Don’t disturb”, the sign reads, “Don’t bother”.
During the last two months, several more examples have been found. Some of the translations are picturesque but totally inappropriate: “Cherishing flowers and trees” means “keep off the grass”. The snack package given to passengers on an airline had the label: “Airline pulp.”
Some linguists feel that cultural differences are responsible for the gaffes. According to an official, the proper English translation will not only help foreigners visiting Beijing, but will also familiarize the Chinese with the cultural aspects of language use (let us not be smug, I remember at least one public notice in India that sounded funny: On the main gate to a private bank, I found the words, “Front door under repair, entrance from inside”).
Translations can be tricky, especially across different language families. Metaphorical expressions in one language become bizarre or comic phrases in another. When reading tales of the Wild West, we chuckle at Sioux tribal names such as Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka) or Crazy Horse (Tashunca-uitco). These were distinguished and honoured names in the language of the Amerindian natives. There can be a similar distortion with Indian names if we translate Neelkant as “blue neck” or Arumugam as “six faces”. Try translating the English surnames Applebottom or Barker or Widowson into an Indian language.
Next to bad English in public notices came the names of Chinese dishes. This indeed was the despair of the organizers, and their challenge. The names that you see on a Chinese menu are often descriptive. Even when the dishes are delectable and appetizing, their names can be so revolting as to turn the eating into a weird experience. News agencies have almost unanimously pointed to “Tong Zi Ji” as the funniest of all. The name means “broiler”, but is translated as “chicken without sexual life”. The name does not give a hint on what you are ordering. It could be something forbidden in your culture.
Xinhua news agency reported that Beijing Tourism has posted a list of 2,753 dishes and drinks with recommended translations online. These new names were approved by a team of 20 translation experts and catering service managers. So the next time you scan the menu in a restaurant in mainland China, you will not have to choose between “corrugated iron beef” and “temple explodes the chicken cube”.
These measures by Beijing municipality were summarized in the crisp headline, “Beijing to stamp out bad English”. The example of Beijing has been emulated by Singapore, where there is a campaign to restrict the use of Singlish (Singapore English). Malaysia has taken similar steps to use English to teach subjects such as math.
To crown all these efforts, the British Prime Minister on his recent visit to China said, “We will take up with vigour the bold task of making our language the world’s common language of choice, the language that helps the world talk, laugh and communicate together.” It is estimated that there are today nearly 1.5 billion speakers of English as their native, second, business or technical language. Brown predicted that by 2025 the number of English speakers in China will exceed the number of speakers of English as a first language in the rest of the world. In an article on the Downing Street website, Brown wrote, “So I want Britain to make a new gift to the world—pledging to help and support anyone, whatever their circumstances, to have access to the tools they need to learn or to teach English.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Feb 25 2008. 12 26 AM IST