Chinglish, or Chinese-English†, although similar in meaning, and occasionally similar in product to Engrish, Singlish, Konglish, Spanglish and Franglais, is also somewhat different to these other products of non-native English grammar, accent, pronunciation and inflection.
Where, for example, the primary purpose of Engrish seems to be for Japanese marketing companies to glom on to the cache of cool possessed by the association of English with American style (the extent of the Japanese love for that style being material for a thousand dissertations), the main purpose of Chinglish seems to be a genuine attempt at translation. That's not to say there aren't examples of adding English to otherwise Chinese products to make them "cool" — that happens too.
As has been noted elsewhere, Chinese and English employ radically different systems of construction and usage. But even beyond that, beyond the technical differences, there are major stylistic disconnects between written English and written Chinese.
To branch briefly into sweeping generalisation, written English can be excruciatingly formal, but is generally wordy and informal and strives to be clear; the acme of good writing in English is the generation of original aphorisms. This is, essentially, the opposite of written Chinese, which values brevity, makes an art out of opaque allusion, and strives to include the most unoriginal phrases possible, to show the author's familiarity with cultural touchstones, and stylistic norms.
This is not for a moment to suggest that one is better than the other, or anything quite so sophomoric. But the stylistic differences, from the perspective of the other, are stark and often noted, and the generalisations above are reasonably easy to see, if not to prove.
Simple Chinglish constructions, like mixing up the sexes (he/she), leaving off prepositions, ignoring tense, and not using plurals are all simply explained. These features of English are not present in Chinese, or present in different forms. Eg:
- (pointing to a woman) "He say four dollar."
- "I ask? No way. So much trouble."
Then there is Chinglish born out of sentence grammar. Chinese is usually strictly SVO - subject, verb, object. English is, well, more flexible. Eg:
- "You want I close window?" - doesn't seem so egregious because the equivalent sentence is also SVO in English, but
- "You want I do what?" - sounds like an accusation in English, but is actually just "What can I do for you?" rendered literally.
There is also a class of Chinglish that stems from bad translations:
- In any dictionary you care to consult, "welcome" will be rendered 欢迎, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this only captures one of the meanings of the Chinese version, which can also serve as the full phrase "you are welcome to" or "thank you for". This results in such awkward constructions as "Welcome to take Beijing taxi."
- Everyone knows "Ni hao" (你好）is "Hello", right? Well, almost. That's true inside a dictionary. In the real world of conversation, however, Ni hao is rarely used in the same place in conversation, or for the same purpose as its alleged analogue. Would you yell "Hello" at a complete stranger? More likely you'd use "hi" or "hey", "g'day" or "wotcher". "John, this is Xuqing from the Shanghai office." "Hello." Probably acceptable, but not what a native speaker would say. Try "Hello John!" with a handshake.
The most interesting variety of Chinglish, however, is born from the stylistic differences mentioned above. These are much harder to pin down, and of course the principle job of a good translator is to completely obliterate changes of this nature in the translation. Because of the popular, yet erroneous, idea prevalent in China that a word-for-word translation is a good translation (generations of non-native instruction have effectively made this true, even if it isn't) one still sees examples of this in the wild. Eg:
- "The building site is prepared according to seven levellings, four pipes."
- "The slogan of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games -- One World, One Dream -- is unveiled in Beijing's Workers' Gymnasium June 26, 2005 amid a performance of modern and traditional Chinese arts. The slogn was announced after months of thrashing out ideas on what captures the spirit of the event, and sifting through suggestions from every corner of China and around the world."
These examples are chosen carefully.
The first illustrates the brevity/clarity divide between written English and written Chinese. The "short name" of the government policy being referred to is perfectly clear in Chinese, but completely unclear in, and in fact untranslatable into, English.
The second example is a direct grab from a news story on China Daily on the day of this writing. Set aside the incorrect grammar, and the clumsy phrasing, and the tragic spelling error (slogan), the selection perfectly illustrates the formality and emotionlessness (in translation) of the Chinese text from which it was originally taken. A native English writer, writing about exactly the same event using almost all the same words, would manage to communicate some of the excitement of the event. That same excitement exists in the original Chinese -- but when it's rendered to Chinglish it somehow loses all zest, and appears nothing more than a list of cliched phrases.
Finally, no explanation of Chinglish would be complete without some sort of wry chuckle at some of the howlers one sees on public signage and on restaurant menus in China. Chinese often misunderstand laughter at these gaffes as some sort of slight, overlooking the roomfull of stares and laughter that inevitably results from any foreigner's attempt at phrasebook Chinese. It all depends on where you are standing! Here are some of the all-time greats:
- "To take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty" - Beijing mall signage (on stairway), now removed.
- "No fight and scrap, no rabble. No feudal fetish or sexy service permitted in the park" - Ming Tombs, now removed.
- "Hot cok with gingers" - what a difference an "e" makes!
- "Boiled Crap with home sauce" - can I get mine with a twist of lemon?
As part of the Olympic
preparation program, in 2002 Beijing began a serious campaign to stamp out public Chinglish. Some churlish
travel writers bemoaned this as destroying China's charming
character. The problems with that argument
are many and manifest
, but my main objection to it is one of logic
. Would said writers be prepared to navigate
a China with no English signage "destroying the charm" at all? I thought not.
Moral? Get your Chinglish while you still can!
†The linguistic term for this kind of joined word is portmanteau.