Like it or not, English has become the international language of communication. While more people speak Mandarin as a native tongue, English is the language most used as a second language. The majority of international travelers who come to China have at least a basic understanding of English.
Many Chinese organizations, public and private, have decided to use English in their brochures and signs. Too often the English leaves a great deal to be desired.Here's an example from the otherwise excellent Beijing Museum of Ancient Architecture:
"Yan state is the areaswheresthe minority nationalities from te souther and norther china crisscrissly inhabited together, the big amount of the relics excavated from te area embodies the cultural influence getting from the central China."
I can assure you that this is a challenge for native speakers to decipher, let alone people with only a modest grasp of the language.Tortured English may cause a certain amusement at first, but after a while people stop even trying to make sense of it.
Moreover, many interesting cultural exhibits have no English explanations at all.Personally, I wish I could read the Chinese explanations directly, but I can't, and neither can the vast majority of non-Chinese visitors.If the world is ever to have a stronger sense of the richness and splendor of China's 5,000-year-old culture, better and more complete information in good English at cultural sites, museums and exhibits is indispensable.
I very much love Qinqiang opera. When I taught at Lanzhou University, I used to stand for hours on the Dongfang Hong Guangchang listening to the evening performances. Before going to formal performances in the opera houses, I studied the stories and characters so that I would understand the action. Here in Beijing I have attended Jingju performances.A performance at the Chang'an Theater first got me thinking about the problem of English translation at Beijing cultural sites. The performance that night was visually beautiful and well sung, but the English translation provided was so oddly worded that at one very inappropriate moment the audience brokesintoslaughter.The errors I am talking about include unidiomatic English, grammatical blunders, misspellings and improper word division at the end of the lines.Here's an example from Wreaking Havoc in Heaven:
...How is it there's not augspicius c
lods here, all is so quite without a h
int of sining lights?
Having to make heads or tails of this sort of "English" detracts from one's enjoyment of opera. And remember: I truly love Chinese culture. What happens when foreigners have to be won over to an appreciation of a difficult and alien but immensely rewarding art form like Beijing opera?
I talked this over with some of my students at the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute.They suggested that we volunteer to help cultural institutions to correct English labels and signs, and also work with the staff at these facilities to translate explanatory textssintosEnglish. We have started doing this on a very small scale. The Summer Palace, we have been pleased to discover, sets an excellent standard: The explanations there are full and almost completely correct.It would be wonderful if all Beijing's cultural facilities did as well.
It turns out that upgrading the English of signs is more work than we had thought and takes considerable coordination. In some cases we have had to visit a site three times to make sure that we understand exactly what needs to be said. Some of the incorrect English has already been engraved in stone or cast in bronze, making revision costly. One partial or short-term solution would be to prepare brochures in English and other languages to hand out to visitors when they purchase tickets.
But this is a job that must be done on a much larger scale and with better coordination than our littlesgroupscan supply.Happily, an Olympic organization is being set up to deal with it.As a retired US Army colonel, I would particularly enjoy helping the staff of the Military Museum.And needless to say, I would love to be of assistance in translating opera librettos.
Teams of native speakers and university English students could take their laptops out to sites and make on-the-spot corrections, or develop English explanationsswheresnone now exist. What a great chance for students to improve their English skills while being of service to society! The government could also have a telephone number for well-meaning laowai to call insgroupsto report confusing errors in public places or important pointsswheresthere is no English at all.
The attention of the world will be riveted on China as the 2008 Olympics approach.We must work hard to enable foreigners to appreciate the glories of Chinese culture.