Every English-speaking tourist in China has, no doubt, come across his or her fair share of ‘Chinglish’ — that is, strangely worded, messy translations of English, as seen on signage, restaurant menus, clothing, and so on.
The acceptability of mistake-ridden Chinglish translations has been widely debated: on the one hand, Chinglish interpretations are fundamentally incorrect, and thus, in theory, should be eliminated. But on the other hand, Chinglish is a unique and intriguing phenomenon, which provides us with fascinating insight into the way in which the Chinese think about language.
An embarrassment or a blessing?
Many believe that Chinglish should not be viewed as an embarrassment to the purity of the English language, but rather, as a humble and charming effort to appeal to foreign English speakers. Moreover, it gives us a new lens through which to view the mundane words that surround our day-to-day lives. It should not be characterized by its linguistic inferiority, but by its fascinating idiosyncrasies and quirks. I don’t know of many English speakers who wouldn’t find it refreshing to read ‘the slippery are very crafty’ instead of ‘wet floor’ at a subway station. The meaning of the words is (more or less) preserved, and if nothing else, it brings a smile to your face.
Finding merit in the silliness
One news article refers to Chinglish as ‘English’s sprightly, unpredictable cousin’. This description could not be more apt. Chinglish is often ridiculous and nonsensical, but it can be a lot more lively and dynamic than conventional English phrases: in one park, the words ‘keep off the grass’ become the poetic phrase, ‘the little grass is sleeping. Please don’t disturb it or don’t hurt me. I am afraid of pain’.
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