The language barrier between China and the world is no secret and, with interaction and economic co-operation at an all-time high, this has brought the process of translation and localisation starkly into focus.
Although there has been a sharp increase in western outfits adopting Chinese to meet demand, it is nothing compared to the scale of internationalisation occurring across mainland China itself. Everything from road signs to property names, websites to packaging, restaurants to brand names, now appear in more than just their native language. And while there’s plenty of efforts in local, regional and national government to make China more globally accessible, all across the private sector, whether small independent firms or national corporations, being linguistically inclusive is a must for boosting business.
Naturally, a transformation on this scale has resulted in countless translation blunders, with many catching the eye in articles and social media pages ridiculing the errors. But behind these mistakes often someone’s reputation and livelihood is at stake. And, as China’s army of consumers continue to take a more prominent role in the world economy, it is only natural that the international community will start to localise, both publicly and privately too. To help both sides avoid some embarrassing mistakes, we’ll break down a selection of seven Chinese-to-English translation blunders.
To see the English name of a cosmetic store as ‘slavery’ is, at the very least, confusing. When you find out the store should really be called “小仙奴” (Xiǎo xian nú), ‘Little Temple Maiden’, it’s downright baffling.
The original of course conjures connotations of femininity and beauty, aptly befitting a cosmetics shop, but break down the characters and the reasons for the error become clear. In its basic form, the word 奴 nú – ‘maiden’ in the correct translation – means ‘slave’. The character 仙 (xian) is what positively transforms the entire phrase, meaning ‘celestial being’ or ‘immortal’. Clearly, the translation software chose to focus on the final character, resulting in something rather cringe-worthy. While an accurate translation would have been a vast improvement, it would have lacked the reverence and meaning that it has with a Chinese audience, so ultimately the company would have been better served having an English name created from scratch.
Many assume that machine translation can handle something as short and simple as menu items. But what they overlook, and often results in baffling errors, is that even food can come with a cultural context. Just look at Caesar Salad or Beef Wellington, for example. Due to sheer number of restaurants making these mistakes, poorly translating menus have become something of a staple on social media.
Above, ‘cell secretary digs up the aubergine’ seems an inexplicable translation for ‘stir-fried sliced aubergine with sauce and minced vegetables’. However, this mistake is rooted in the literal translation of the characters, which hold multiple meanings. 支书 Zhīshū is an abbreviation of 支部书记 Zhībù shūjì, which means ‘branch secretary’ (a communist party position). But there’s more to it than that.
支 Zhī can also mean ‘branch’, too, while additionally acting as a classifier for thin, long objects, whereas 书 shū (book) has the same pronunciation as 蔬 shū (vegetables). So, the original Chinese name involves an element of word play. These two characters can be read as ‘branch secretary’ but, in the context of dining, all native-speakers would understand it as ‘sliced vegetables’. On top of that, 扒 has two meanings and can be pronounced in two different ways. 扒 Bā is to dig up, but 扒 Pá is to braise. At least 茄子 qié zi, ‘aubergine’, made it through ok.
Having no appreciation for context or empathy, translation software can only focus on the most common interpretations of characters. Unsurprisingly this results in it having no chance of even noticing, let alone accurately translating, such culturally specific bits of wordplay. translation and localisation
This example comes from one of the world’s biggest lithium battery producers. They create fantastic products which have received numerous awards for quality and innovation. However, the same cannot be said for the English in their official website, which is consistently poor throughout.
Analysing the grammatical structure of the sentences and word for word translations clearly shows machine translation played a key part in their localisation process. Additionally, the person who uploaded the English content to the website has a poor command of the language, leaving sentences cut short. The irony of a company preaching quality as one of their key values but then failing to localise effectively is stark, directly undermining their message and the brand itself. A native English copywriter with a background in marketing would have easily avoided these embarrassing mistakes.
Packaging translation mistakes have resulted in countless bizarre sentence and word combinations. While amusing on social media, at its most serious the impact can be extremely harmful to customers (especially when concerning food and health products) and at the very least will create serious doubts about the product itself.
Here we consider some baby food – the type of product where quality and safety are paramount for the consumers in question. The Chinese reads as ‘儿童营养肉松’, meaning ‘Nutritional minced meat for babies’. Unfortunately, their error has made it seem the babies were integral in the meat itself, rather than the intended recipients! translation and localisation
The appearance of ‘Delicious Classic’ is also one of the most common translation mistakes on food packaging. In fact, a closer equivalent would be ‘original flavour’.
This primary mistake happened because product names rarely use grammatical particles – for example, the washing powder or a paint bucket – but instead use only nouns and adjectives. Without them, coupled with the fact that Chinese words can be verbs, nouns and adjectives simultaneously, makes it extremely difficult to establish links between different words within sentences. These problems are only exacerbated when machine translation is involved.
In this case, the company didn’t take the process of translation seriously enough, resulting in this horrendous mistake. This cost them dearly and could have been avoided if they had invested the time and resources into professionally translating and localising their packaging.
Developing marketing slogans is a sophisticated process, requiring a deep understanding of the linguistic nuances and unique cultural aspects of the target market. To illustrate this point we will use one translation company as an example. They have crafted a wonderful Chinese slogan, greeting local consumers who enter the website. Reading ‘传递语言更传递竞争的力量’ (Chuándì yǔyán gèng chuándì jìngzhēng de lìliàng), it translates as ‘Conveying languages means delivering competitive advantage’.
The same linguistic artistry is not so evident in the English equivalent. As you can see, ‘We deliver languages and more’ makes little logical sense, while lacking clarity and direction to such an extent that it undermines your trust in their principle offering – the understanding of languages.
So, how did they end up there? The original Chinese slogan is short, abstract and plays on some of the unique characteristics of the Chinese language, making it impossible to translate effectively. They certainly understood this issue and set out to localise the message into English with the original tone intact.
Unfortunately, this was done poorly. They were left with a grammatically incorrect and illogical slogan that, instead of attracting and convincing potential clients to use their service, plants serious doubts about the credibility and professionalism of their company.
Their main mistake lies not in the quality of translation, but the poor localisation of the slogan itself. People outside of a specific culture and language – especially those that contrast so dramatically – are generally unable to create relevant and appealing messages to them. The main lesson here is that to effectively localise requires the knowledge, skills and perspective that only native speakers possess.
Despite huge improvements in the quality of Chinese goods, these types of mistakes are a prime cause of Chinese brands failing to shake off these stereotypes in the wider world.
Taken from a Chinese fashion brand, the product in this brochure is aimed at educated consumers with high levels of income. In a bid to win them over, they have attempted to create an international image worthy of prestige.
Sadly, they underestimated the complexities involved in translation and localisation, leaving them their ad littered with unintelligible English. There are so many mistakes in both the English paragraph and the marketing slogans that explaining each of them would require an entire article itself! translation and localisation
The company invested a lot in hiring professional photographers, graphic designers and writers to create their brochure. However, their failure to invest the necessary time and money into professional translation and localisation left them with an end result that amounts to wasted time money and effort, while likely seeing them losing potential custom in the future too.
This example was spotted at a major Chinese airport. The fact such an error was made by a major airline demonstrates of how widespread these kinds of translation mistakes are. What they were trying to say was: ‘Please wait outside the one metre line’, effectively ‘queue behind the line’, but what tripped them up was the double meaning of 米 mǐ.
A character most commonly used for ‘rice’, it can also represent a unit of measurement: ‘metre’ is 米 mǐ, ‘centimetre’ is 厘米 lí mǐ, and so on. Yī, which means ‘one’, is key in distinguishing that contextually ‘metre’ is the correct translation – just like in English, you can’t have ‘one rice’. However, as yī often acts as an article, like ‘a’ does in English, the translation software followed this line of thought, rather than taking it for its numerical value. translation and localisation
线 xiàn, which follows, meaning ‘line’ or ‘thread’ also falls foul once this judgement has been made. The combination of 米 and 线 changes “metre line” into “rice-flour noodle” – a common dish in China. As you can see, even the tiniest details can lead to bizarre and seemingly unthinkable results, unless you know the ins and outs of the language and context.
As you can see, when the importance of translation and localisation isn’t respected it can seriously undermine everything a company ploughs into a product or brand, costing money, reputation or simply hard work. These pitfalls are all too often discovered once it’s too late, so seeking out professional translating and copywriting services to aid the process is a sure-fire route to peace of mind when trying to swerve a costly mistake.
Translation and localisation