Good Signs, Bad Signs

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My last entry on efforts to standardize translation of signage in Beijing drew a lot of commentary.

I agree with Brittany, who writes that more visitors to China ought to learn Chinese, though I’m not as worried as she is that more precise translation of signage is a threat to Chinese culture.

I also agree with those of you who said that getting the English right might take a long time. Of course it will. But I don’t think this is really an issue of stages of development. I was in Tokyo over the weekend and though it’s probably the most “developed” place I’ve ever been, the English signage is far from flawless there either. Then there’s the signage in Kennedy Airport in New York. It’s a disaster. I’m not even sure there are translations on the signs there at all. And the people who make the announcements, even in the international terminals, employ diction so abysmal that it’s difficult for even native New Yorkers let-alone jet-lagged foreigners to understand what’s being said. I cringe every time I’m in that terminal. I feel embarrassed as a New Yorker. I wish someone would fix the problem. Sometimes even translate announcements into standard English without being asked. So I can relate on some level to those of you who are Chinese and feel embarrassed by China’s awkward translations.

Still I think it’s possible to blow the significance of a few weird signs way out of proportion. It seems perfectly natural to me that there should be errors in translation. English and Chinese are very different languages (even the English of Foreign Ministry translators is often jarring), signage is idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate, and most of the people who erect signs aren’t linguists.

What’s way weirder than the mistranslations themselves is the way is they are invested with importance, as if proper English grammar is what stands between China and full-fledged developed nation status, or that there is such a thing. That this is the kind of issue that calls for a “campaign” and gets reported on as if it’s major news seems a little nuts when you consider the more substantive problems the country has to deal with.

I think there are various reasons for this. One has to do with a kind of still-pervasive unease about national stature. It seems like these feelings are often manifest in a preoccupation with international standards and “getting up” to them, and the idea that China and it’s people will be laughed at if certain codes of conduct aren’t met.

China also has a history of fixating on symbols and trappings and conflating them with substantive achievements. This is a complicated issue because symbols function in complicated ways and often do have mysterious power over human behavior. But focusing on symbolic issues–as anyone who follows American politics knows all too well–is also a good way of distracting people from problems and issues that are more complex.

My sense is that both factors–concern with stature and fixation on trappings– are at work in the signage translation campaign. China has invested the 2008 Olympics with so much symbolic power, as a badge of international legitimacy, as a chance to show that the country’s athletes are not weak and so, by proxy, the country itself is strong, the proof that China is no longer isolated, by itself or by other countries. In this context, fixing the signs seems to spring from an impulse similar to the one that brought the world’s celebrity architects to Beijing to design the Olympic venues, or Steven Spielberg to help direct the opening ceremony. Beijing has set the Olympics up as a chance to prove something to world and it wants to make sure it’s dressed for the occasion.

Fine. Polish is important. But don’t you think there’s still something a little unbecoming about devoting so much energy to English signs when there are so many other more substantive issues that need attention?

Then again, as one of you said, maybe it’s good for business. Maybe this is the right strategy. After all there are plenty of foreigners who come through Shanghai every year and think that’s what the whole country is like. (By the way, read James Areddy’s fantastic piece in the Wall Street Journal today on how Chen Liangyu spent the city’s pension funds.)

Still, there’s seems to me something pernicious about official formulations of “development” that put so much emphasis on superficial achievements like tall shiny buildings, gold medals and properly conjugated verbs, don’t you think?