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November 27, 2010

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Lost in translation

EXPATRIATES living in Shanghai all have their favorite Chinglish stories. And most regret not having a camera on hand at one time or another when coming across signs such as "Keep your legs, no running" instead of "Use Caution on Escalator" or "Tender Fragrant Grass. How hard-hearted to trample them" rather than "Keep off the Grass."

However, some expats in Changning District are volunteering their time to help the local government correct poorly worded English signs. On the fifth day of each month, a team of more than 10 expats gathers to check signs in public places.

"When I came in 1996, there were not so many English signs in Shanghai and it was not easy to find language mistakes," says Noyan Rona, a 53-year-old Turkish living in the district.

"Later, English signs got more and more and then mistakes appeared frequently. I remember the road name written on a big street sign read Paynu Road instead of Panyu Road. It was a small mistake but it creates a lot of problems for foreigners here."

He is a former diplomat and the current chief representative of Turkish Garanti Bank Shanghai Representative Office. Rona was transferred from the Turkish Embassy in Beijing to Shanghai to establish the Consulate General of Turkey in Shanghai in 1996. He speaks fluent Chinese, which helps him correct Chinglish signs.

Working closely with Ronghua Community in 1999, Rona took part in many types of volunteer activities. Correcting Chinglish is part of this but he considers it as "regular work."

"It is like a lifestyle," he says. "Whenever I go out, it is very natural for me to check Chinglish everywhere. It is not limited to traffic signs and road names. I look at signs in shopping malls, subway stations, even restaurants - all kinds of menus in restaurants and coffee shops."

"I also check Chinglish words to Chinese words. Sometimes the English is correct but the meaning in Chinese is wrong," he adds.

Rona recalls an example found on a menu. "Fried Salmon fish" in Chinese was translated into zha gui yu, which means "fried Mandarin fish."

Rona says if he finds an incorrect translation in a restaurant or store he will talk to the manager and explain it.

"They are so nice and are always willing to make the correction," Rona says.

"If it is an organized activity by the community to check Chinglish signs in public places, the volunteer team, featuring native English speakers as well as Italian, German and Japanese, will write a report and deliver it to the appropriate departments."

As Shanghai becomes more metropolitan and open, Rona says signs need to be in proper English. Otherwise, it will create "a big mess and the city loose respect."

Some of the signs are amusing like "Wear Well the Safety Hat" for "Hard Hat Required." Others are baffling such as "The white gets the apartment," which should read "Apartments for White-collar Professionals."

Rona has also spotted a new trend emerging in Changning. He says some shops, restaurants and bars and even some buses use only English names.

"No Chinese at all," he says. "A local person will not be able to understand which kind of service they are providing. I believe it should be Chinese first."

Domenico Palumbo is also an enthusiast for correcting Chinglish in Changning.

Coming from a tiny farming village in southern Italy, the 34-year-old was the venue manager at the USA Pavilion at the World Expo, but is now enjoying a break.

He has lived and worked in China for over 12 years. Palumbo says he moved to Shanghai in early 2004, left in 2007 and came back at the end of last year.

"Overall city signs are pretty clear," he says. "Obviously, they have improved last year thanks to the Expo. However, you can always spot some confusion here and there."

Palumbo is a valuable member of the volunteer team. He is also fluent in Italian and speaks French well.

"This is one of the most interesting activities as it gives me the opportunity to interact with local residents and business owners who are really eager to learn and improve their foreign language knowledge," Palumbo says.

"When I get time off work, I am happy to join such volunteer activities as this not only gives me the opportunity to meet new people living in my community, but it's also a great way to practice and improve my Chinese (and Shanghainese) language skills."

He recalls a mistake he once found: "Don't forget to carry your thing," which should read "Please don't leave personal belongings unattended."

Palumbo says the golden rule for every language is to translate the general meaning of the sign, without getting into a word-by-word translation.

"Shanghai's efforts to display bilingual signs everywhere is admirable as it's a good way to welcome foreign visitors to the city," he says. "However, this needs to be done properly to avoid possible misunderstandings."

From a countryside village of less than 300 people in southern Italy, Palumbo now lives in a district with more than 1.6 million people. He considers Changning to be one of the most livable districts in Shanghai as people can easily find anything to satisfy their needs and the communities are warm and helpful, just like his hometown.

"I'm Looking forward to living in Shanghai for many more years to come," Palumbo says. "I will keep helping to improve the daily life of both residents and visitors in Changning."


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