Those damned English experts


Discreet airport transit

The Beijing Subway system recently issued a bilingual safety manual for riders on the Airport Express line. Zhai Hua, a blogger who posts on cross-cultural issues, noted several types of problems with the booklet:

  • Typos: From the title, “Passenter Safety Tips,” to “swiping the card gentaally”;
  • Infelicitous translations: “do not attack door” (不要扒门: “Do Not Force Door”), “Please ask for the working staff of station for help if need,” and “Waiting as your line No.” (按线候车, apparently an instruction to stand as directed by yellow lines on the floor);
  • Mystifying cover design: A shapely woman silhouetted over a pink heart.

On October 30, the Beijing Youth Daily summarized Zhai’s blog post and asked the subway company for an explanation:

A representative of the subway company said that some controversial translations, apart from obvious spelling errors, required expert assessment. “There are multiple translations for ditie (地铁), including ‘metro’ and ‘subway,’ and you can’t say any particular one is wrong.” The representative said that the operating company was responsible for printing the manual, and that he would handle the matter after looking into it further. As for the controversy over the cover image, that was a case of difference of opinion.

“Experts” could conceivably argue over whether to use “metro” or “subway,” if the city hadn’t already decided on the latter, but many of the errors in the pamphlet are indefensible.

Zhai notes that few years ago, an “expert” was cited in defense of Shanghai’s use of “model unit” as a translation of 文明单位, an honor bestowed on organizations that meet certain standards of excellence. Zhai and other Internet commentators felt that the city’s translation captured none of the meaning of the original and could be misinterpreted as referring to a promotional apartment unit in a new development.

The city’s response to Xinmin Online:

Selection of “model units” in Shanghai is undertaken by the Shanghai Municipal Civilization Office, and the city government issues “model unit” plaques. The English translation is attested by the authority of an expert in English linguistics and has been in use for many years. It is authoritative and will continue to be used in the future.

Other parts of the country use “civilized unit,” a translation that has its own problems. Yet when pressed, they would probably be able to justify the choice by appealing to the judgment of an expert.

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