Ever since China opened up to the West, the country has bent over backwards to increase the use of English within its borders. This serves several purposes: it eases the way for foreign tourists, it creates a cosmopolitan atmosphere that is attractive to many, and it enables Chinese people to communicate with the rest of the world (nearly all Chinese study English in high school; many begin as early as kindergarten).

In many parts of China, this campaign has been enormously successful. Urban centers like Shanghai are filled with beautifully translated English signs, menus, and reading materials, and I have met countless Chinese people who speak English with a level of fluency and cultural understanding that I can never hope to achieve in a second language.

In other parts of China, English has failed to penetrate at all. Most smaller cities, rural communities, and impoverished areas contain not a single trace of English.

Then there are the margins between those two zones. The borderlands. This is where Chinglish—which I prefer to call “translationish,” since it can occur with any language—flourishes. These are the places where shopkeepers and managers feel the need to provide English on their signs, but lack the knowledge or resources to consult an actual English speaker before hanging said signs for all the world to see.

In Lijiang, the border between the Old Town and the New Town is just such a place. In the Old Town, generous government funding and the presence of thousands of foreign tourists have led to very nice, correctly translated English. In the depths of the New Town, where few foreigners venture, there is no English to be seen at all. The border between the two areas—along Changshui road or Nankou road, for example—is a treasure-trove of delightful translationisms. Whenever I see one, I love to try to figure out what exactly happened during the murky translation process. Below, I’ve compiled a list of a few favorites .

1. Water is deep 2 meterses, falling into water carefully!


Chinese: 水深2米,小心跌落!

A better translation: Water is 2 meters deep, be careful!

This is an example of a very common mistake at parks and tourist sites across China. The translator forgets to add that all-important “of,” resulting in warnings like “please hit your head carefully” instead of “please be careful of hitting your head.” Even this second translation, while correct, still sounds a little odd in English, however. This is because Chinese verbs usually require an object in a way that English verbs do not. In Chinese, if you eat, you have to “eat rice” (吃饭). If you read, you have to “read books” (看书). If you are warning people to be careful, you have to tell them what to be careful of. It sounds much more natural in English to simply say “be careful” and leave it at that. Besides this, I think the spelling error in “meterses” adds to the overall endearing tone of this sign; it reminds me of something Gollum might say.

2. Adult thing


Chinese: 成人用品

A better translation: Adult Products

Technically, this translation isn’t wrong…it just looks and sounds very odd. Partly this is because it uses the singular “thing” instead of the plural “things.” Partly it’s because “thing” sounds rather informal and crass compared to the more professional-sounding “product.” Finally, it’s because the sign is so large and so very prominent, failing monumentally to disguise or euphemize the bawdy “Thing” within.

3. Calculate a spicy fish of Dali


Chinese: 大理酸辣鱼

A better translation: Dali Hot and Sour Fish

This is an interesting one, because the mistake occurred on the Chinese end. I can imagine exactly how it happened: someone was typing the restaurant’s Chinese name into Baidu Translate using the pinyin input method, and instead of typing 酸 (suān, “sour”), they accidently typed 算 (suàn, “calculate”). Baidu spit out an English translation, and that was that. It’s a mistake I could have easily made myself!

4.Clashing of convenience stores


Chinese: 铮铮便利店

A better translation: Clang-Clang Convenience Store

铮铮 (zhēng zhēng) is an onomatopoeia meaning “clang” or “clash.” The translator (probably Baidu again) attempted to grammaticize the English version by turning the name into a complete clause. It wouldn’t make sense to have a convenience store clashing with itself, however; hence, the plural “stores.”

5. Jiang Li of Aftertaste


Chinese: 回味丽江

A better translation: Savoring Lijiang

Most modern Chinese is written horizontally from left to right, although it can also be written in vertical columns from right to left. Then there are the formal titles written on temples, gates, and other stately edifices, which are written horizontally from right to left. This Lijiang hotel has a left-to-right name written over the door, but further down the street they’ve hung this sign, which is written from right to left. It makes sense, because it directs guests in the correct direction towards the hotel (left). Whoever translated the sign must have forgotten that written English does not share the flexibility of Chinese. Incidentally, the word 回味 (huíwèi) can either be a noun meaning “aftertaste,” or it can be a verb meaning “to remember and savor.” Syntactically, the second meaning should be correct here.

6. The Fat Sister’s Yak Meat


Chinese: 胖大姐牦牛肉

A better translation: …The Fat Sister’s Yak Meat

This is what I like to call “faux Chinglish.” The name of this store seems too bizarre to be translated correctly. And yet, when you read the Chinese…it was translated correctly. It’s simply a bizarre name for a store. I should point out that in China, it is perfectly socially acceptable to call somebody fat to his or her face. “Fatty” (胖子) is a common nickname for anyone on the chunkier side, and no offense is taken.

7. Chongqing a muggle copy to hand to most


Chinese: 重庆名小吃香麻抄手

A better translation: Famous Chongqing Snacks and Spiced Dumplings

Ah, the mysteries of Baidu Translate. I’ve been trying desperately to figure out how a perfectly ordinary restaurant name managed to apparate into the Harry Potter universe. “Chongqing” made it through the magical Baidu veil unscathed. “Copy to hand” makes sense, because it could be a sort-of-literal translation of 抄手. And “muggle” is translated in the Harry Potter books as 麻瓜(máguā), so that could be a loose interpretation of 麻.  But where did “most” come from? And why did they have to add all those “to’s?” If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them!