You are welcome to travel by our plane / by Thomas O'Malley


Below is a column I wrote for China Eastern inflight magazine that was pulled at the eleventh hour so I'm posting here for fun.

The title of this column was spotted printed on a toothpick packet given to passengers aboard a Chinese airline. (Not this airline, by the way, but we share the sentiment). At its most mild-mannered, ‘Chinglish’ (a word in the Oxford English Dictionary), brims with charming naivety. In its more extreme examples, things get pretty strange pretty quickly.

For example, if the passengers above were in Peking Airport circa 2010, they might have stumbled upon a sign, as I did, outside Pizza Hut stating, ‘Please forgive to be incontinent for interior decoration.’ Well, if they’re redecorating anyway…

As a native English writer who couldn’t give a false cognate about language pedantry, it’s wonderful to see the building blocks of communication we so rigidly toss out being reassembled into a different beast. It’s like a Lego kit without the instructions.

Because English and Chinese are fundamentally distinct, translation software is often the culprit rather than the cure. Restaurant menus throw up lots of recurring Chinglish clangers. Maybe you fancy a bowl of ‘Bacteria Soup’? Bacteria being an unfortunate translation of ‘assorted mushrooms’. Another ubiquitous software error is the character gan (meaning ‘dry’) being translated to its sometimes slang form, equivalent to the English ‘f’-word. Hence a common menu item like ganguo (literally ‘dry pot’, a dish of meat or vegetables served on a small heated wok on the table) becomes ‘f*ck pot’ in English, or occasionally more poetically, ‘the meat f*cks the pot’. Ahem.

Many such Chinglish errors occur because translation happens character-by-character without respect to the complete word or phrase. Disabled toilets are sometimes emblazoned with the words “DEFORMED MAN”, a too-literal take on canjiren, the Chinese for disabled.

Equally, these mistakes are left to stand because folks doing the conversion don’t have the language smarts themselves to spot the error (or forget to check). A now famous example, shared by Atlantic Correspondent James Fallows, was a restaurant sign in Shanghai that said canting, or ‘restaurant’ in Chinese characters, with the English beneath reading, “TRANSLATION SERVER ERROR”.

It goes without saying that unless you’re fluent in Chinese (I’m not), to mock these mistakes is absolutely a point of arrogance. Should global travel trends continue to shift along an east-west trajectory, we can expect to see much more Chinese signage in English-speaking capitals around the world soon. And middle-aged ex-backpackers will quickly tire of the sniggers that greet their nonsensical Mandarin tattoos by Chinese travellers.

In any case, rapidly rising levels of English fluency in China, coupled with government policies to stamp out Chinglish, mean all too soon you won’t be able to get a ‘Fried Enema’ for love nor money in Beijing (a local starch sausage called guanchang whose name some dictionaries muddle with a less than appetizing medical procedure.)

And surely that’s not something we want. Instead, I’d like to call on you all to treasure and take joy from what will ultimately end up a dead language. Chinglish, like the ‘fragile green grass’ referred to in a sign in a Chinese national park, “is longing for your cherishing.”