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Words can be dangerous


Language is subtle and constantly changing, challenging us to stay abreast of it. That's true for one's native language, but especially so for a second language.


Literal translation is dangerous, because it often creates inaccurate, incongruous, and downright funny results.


In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, I stopped in a men's room near the departure gates in the Beijing Capital Airport. There was a campaign underway to improve English language skills of service personnel in Beijing in anticipation of the huge influx of foreign visitors for the Games.


For some reason, one misguided offshoot of this well-intentioned language campaign resulted in an English-language sign being posted above the urinals in this particular men's room.


The sign read: "Urine Pond."

上面写着:"Urine Pond"(直译为小便池塘)。

While it's correct that a pond is a small body (usually) of water, most people would associated it as a place to swim, fish, or have a picnic next to, rather than in the context of a toilet. Fortunately, the sign was gone on my next visit.


We've come a long way since the early days of China's export boom beginning in the 1980s. Looking back at China's export advertising in that era, there were some fairly awkward brand names in use. Some of these were famous brands in China, which either sounded funny when directly translated into English (e.g. Flying Pigeon bicycles), or were a thick jumble of impossible-to-pronounces letters for the average foreigner, because they were presented in the standard Chinese Romanization system: hanyu pinyin. Lots of "Qs" and "Zs" in unfamiliar combinations with other letters.

中国的出口业自上世纪80年代起开始蓬勃发展,至今我们已经走过了漫长的道路。回想那个年代的中国出口商品广告,有一些非常不好用的品牌名称,其中不乏中国知名品牌,一些名称直译成英文后听起来非常搞笑(比如"飞鸽"自行车,这个牌子英文直译为"Flying Pigeon",而"Pigeon"一词在英文中含有贬义,可用于形容"容易受骗的笨蛋"),有些品牌名称则是一般外国人根本念不出来的一大堆字母,因为这些品牌名称以标准的中文拉丁化系统——汉语拼音——书写,都是一些奇怪的字母组合,里面有很多Q和Z。

Words borrowed into English (or other languages) can also be tricky. In the mid-80s a French friend of mine in the textile business showed me an English language advertisement from a Chinese textile goods producer in Dalian. It displayed a type of fabric which they had on offer which was woven from silk yarn. It was no doubt a fine product, but the brand name, which formed the headline of the ad, was "Belle Pine."

英语(或其他语言)的借入词也可能带来麻烦。上世纪80年代中期,有位做纺织生意的法国朋友给我看了一个大连纺织品厂的英文广告,上面展示了工厂推出的一种绢丝织物,产品无疑是优良的,但组成广告大字标题的品牌名称却是"Belle Pine"(美人松)。

In English, "pine" is of course a kind of tree. "Belle" is a borrow-word from French which can mean beautiful, or an attractive young woman (e.g. "belle of the ball"). So far so good.

在英文里,"pine"当然是指一种树,而"belle"一词是从法语借来的,意思可以是美丽,也可以是迷人的年轻女子(例如,belle of the ball,即舞会上的美女)。只是这么看,还不错。

Unfortunately, as my French friend pointed out, "belle pine" in French means "beautiful penis."

可惜的是,法国朋友指出,belle pine在法语意为"漂亮的阳具"。

Whoops. Perhaps not what the ad agency had in mind.


Acronyms are another tricky category in English usage, because of possible unintended similarities with regular words in spelling or pronunciation.


An example comes to mind from the early days of the boom in international exhibitions and trade fairs in China. Trade fair organizers like to use acronyms to brand their events because, if properly handled, they are shorter and easier to remember than a long descriptive string of words.


In 1983 an ad appeared in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post announcing the 1st China International Hotel and Restaurant Supplies Exhibition in Beijing. The unfortunate choice of acronym was "China Hores," which sounds like something very different from hotel and restaurant supplies. No doubt an unintended pun.

1983年,香港《南华早报》刊登了北京即将举办第一届"中国国际酒店及餐厅用品展"(China International Hotel and Restaurant Suppliers Exhibition)的广告。它的缩写被不幸选定为"China Hores",听上去像是跟酒店和餐厅用品风马牛不相及的东西(这个缩写发音像英文"China whore",即中国妓女——译注)。显然,这是一个无意中造成的双关语。

As I've written about in an earlier post, there are certain words in English which are easily mixed up. The example in my earlier post was "cucumber" and "concubine" because of the phonetic similarities.

在较前的一篇博客中,我曾经提到,某些英语词汇容易相互混淆。那篇博文举的例子是 "cucumber"(黄瓜)和"concubine"(小妾),因为这两个单词的发音十分接近。

Other examples include "distinguished" and "extinguished." I was once part of a delegation to China whose Chinese host kindly offered us a farewell banquet in which he described our group in glowing terms but used the words "extinguished group" rather than "distinguished group." We knew what he meant, anyway.


"Persecuted", "prosecuted", and "executed" also fall into the category of easily mixed up words.


An example was the notice posted by the Incorporated Owners of Gold Ning and Gold King Mansions in Hong Kong many years back, urging residents to ensure their dogs did not answer the call of nature on the premises.


The final sentence of the sign read "Any person who lets their dogs release themselves in the building's public area shall be liable to be executed."

告示的最后一句话是这样写的:" 放任犬只在大厦公共区域内随意大小便者将被处决。"

Pretty high stakes for pet owners.



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