“Slip carefully” is the Google Translate for 小心滑倒, a common sign in Chinese for “Caution, Slippery”. Hilarious fails aside, we have to say Chinese-English translation can be tricky. Sometimes, what seem to make sense logically from the translators’ point of view, is spectacularly wrong for the audience. Here are four most common reasons for translation fails:
Where does the word begins and ends?
In Chinese, while each character has their meanings, they are more often put together to form words 词语, which means something related but nonetheless quite different. You can see a typical example in this door plate which reads “burn the dress” in English, when it should have been “ironing room”. The mistake is that the translation is made for each word directly, instead of considering the two characters 烫衣 “burn – dress” as a single word to mean ironing. As Chinese is written without gaps in between words, this is often the most tricky part to tell where the word begins and ends!
Active or passive?
The second biggest grammatical challenge it that Chinese words does not have tenses technically. As such, there is no concept of passive or active voice as defined by past tense. This could be a problem sometimes, as you can see from this sign: where it should be “fined”, the translator, with the best intension, was probably not aware of the need for passive voice!
One word, many meanings
Even when one can tell which characters should be considered together as a word, sometime a word has multiple meanings, and one needs to choose carefully which one fits in with the context. The word 出口, for example, can mean both Export or Exit. In this sign, it seems they have made the wrong choice.
“Beware of safety” is another typical example where 注意 surely means beware, but in this sign, it should be more accurately understood as “attention to”. It is subtle, but it makes a world of difference!
Sometimes, however, it is less about accuracy but the context. For example, in this sign, where deformity, meaning “a part of someone’s body which is not the normal shape because of injury or illness” (Collins Dictionary) is probably a more accurate translation of the Chinese word 残疾; “Disabled” is a much better choice in the context of washrooms.
Where euphemism is at the core of the English language, in Chinese indirect expressions take another form which may not be easily translated. Both of these signs would make perfect sense to the Chinese reader: that they should leave the grass alone and keep the environment clean. They would be considered literally good signs, as they are polite enough not to tell people what to do directly. Not only that, they read like poetic couplets with the same number of characters, and they even rhyme. However, it gets clumsy when the translators tried to keep the same literary expression and politeness in English.
In the age of automated translation perfected by accelerated machine learning, these funny fails may soon be a thing in the past. However, it may be worth pondering, when we no longer have to painstakingly translate words and sentences, how much then could we really appreciate the process and intricacy of learning about each others’ languages and bridging our cultures in a meaningful, nuanced way? This is probably a thought worth chewing on.