We recently delved into the realm of infamous mistranslations and as we discovered, translation bungles haven’t just tickled ribs in the past – they could have instigated the first use of nuclear weapons in war.
Today’s mistranslations tend to be on the hilarious side and on the face of it are harmless enough – but Chinese authorities have stepped in to introduce new Chinese translation guidelines in a bid to improve grammar and translations as a whole.
China has had enough of the memes
No single country has the monopoly on mistranslations, or a general lack of international cultural awareness – but East Asia has garnered a special reputation for poor translations from local tongue into English.
This prevalence of poor translation (or rather the frequency with which it’s noticed) is due to the deep economic and historic ties between the region and the English speaking world – ties that draw visitors from all over the planet for business and leisure.
Even though bad translations into English first found fame with Japan’s fast and loose use of English, it’s been China that’s found itself the butt of the English speaking world’s jokes. The Chinese government has finally had enough of everyone laughing at menus and signposts.
Taking effect in December 2017, English translation in 13 public facing industries will be standardised. The new guidelines for Chinese translation are quite simple and should put an end to the somewhat “poetic” English translations of years gone by. According to the new guidelines, the priorities are proper grammar and keeping language simple: throwing out rare turns of phrase and seldom used words will help remove translation doubts – and put an end to some of the more creatively offensive interpretations made famous on social media.
Within these guidelines for simplicity, a general reduction in the use of English is implied; the new rules ask the public sector to avoid overuse of the English language in public places.
Why is the Government of China so concerned?
When it comes down to it, it’s an image issue. It’s not so much that Chinese officials are feeling particularly sensitive – it’s more how the country as a whole is viewed by the international community.
The confusing, often humorous and sometimes offensive translations to English might tickle native English speakers and provide some lowbrow laughs, but the long-term effect on China is actually quite damaging. It paints a portrait of ineptitude, giving the collective nation a bumbling and half-witted appearance. This betrays the economic, academic and cultural brilliance of the country as a whole – and as a country, the image has to be refreshed.
It’s for the same reason that professional language translation services exist. Any professional business with multilingual operations wants to ensure that any text associated with them is properly translated for the intended audience. Any harm to the target language is a harm to business.
And that’s exactly how China sees it; as the country grows economic ties with the rest of the world, it’s becoming clearer where other nations have the upper hand – and one of the key areas is translation into English. While there’s no risk of China being left behind, repositioning as a confident and competent user of English will help keep the country at the front of the trade queue.
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