“Engrish/Chinglish”: Language Lost in Translation


Growing up, I would visit Hong Kong and/or Taiwan every year to visit family and see my birthplace. At first, during these visits, I would try to read signs or menus using whatever Chinese characters I could muster.  However, as I progressed through the American school system, it became much easier and comfortable to read the English translations.   Even in my early teens, it was easy to tell that some of these translations had critical grammatical, diction, and spelling errors. In most cases, one could easily decipher what the phrase truly meant, but in others… You always figured someone would start a hefty business correcting such errors, or at the very least, be low-cost translators for small businesses. Guess not.

“Engrish” or “Chinglish”, as a phenomenon, has permeated through so much of Asian culture that some people are considering it to be beyond a parody of grammar and instead believe that it is an integral part of modern Asian culture. However, even if one does consider “Engrish” to be the – for the lack of a better word – “progression” of English in certain parts of the world; many social problems, especially in our increasingly border-less world, become more and more pertinent as “Engrish” becomes more socially appropriate and accessible. “Engrish” doesn’t necessarily promote a good image on behalf of Asians; it’s hard to be proud of something like this because it ultimately reflects the ignorance, and even a bit of stupidity, on those who create the signs.   Not to mention, those who do need English to navigate themselves through Asia could easily have trouble understanding “Engrish” signs.

It also promotes the use of “Engrish” to those who are not native English speakers. Many times, we hear stories of or see “Fobs”, the immigrants who are “Fresh off the Boat” that subsequently do not have proper mastery of colloquial English.  From what I remember, elementary school teachers used stop signs or stop lights to promote the learning of spelling and language. The same can be said of learning a second language. If all around you, there are signs using  English that is grammatically incorrect, and you assume it is correct, why should you not think that its a proper usage of the English language?

It’s not that the translation isn’t hard enough: even the simplest things like “Yes” or “No” to certain questions could be confusing due to cultural upbringings and grammar. Ben clarifies for us:

The question of: “Tomorrow we don’t have class?” can be qualified by multiple answers:

1) Yes. – Yes we have class.
2) Yes. – Yes, we don’t have class.
3) No. – No, we have class.
4) No. – No, we don’t have class.

1 and 4 are essentially the same as are 2 and 3. But it depends on how you phrase the question and how the answer is phrased.. Also, negations in Chinese are tied to specifics. You rarely say bu (不), and instead you say buyao (不要), or meiyou(沒有). In any case, this guy is… simplifying it too much.

He’s right. The author’s oversimplifying the concept, but there have been instances, with my aunts, cousins, and even my mother, where I have had to clarify because they answer simply with a word. So a “Yes” to the question like “I can’t stay out past midnight?” (because sometimes even 18 year old college students have curfew when they’re back home) makes me question “‘Yes, I can’ or ‘Yes, I can’t’?” Ultimately the best solution is to ask a better question: “Can I stay out past midnight tonight” which leads to “Yes” or “No” with no confusion.

Still, this phenomenon, and the ramifications it carries, only further accentuates the difficulties of crossing cultural borders splitting the East and the West.  Widespread change and corrections throughout Asia is highly unlikely, and “Engrish” is without a doubt going to stay, cultural impacts or not.

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About Kevin

Kevin is a Taiwanese-American college student in Claremont, CA who immigrated from Taipei to the suburbs of LA when he was six. He enjoys intelligent hip-hop, poetry, watching football (both kinds), playing basketball, sudokus, and delicious fruit.
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