Bad English Is Fun English

One of the joys of traveling abroad is reading bad English translations of signs and instructions. Now the Chinese government wants to take the fun out of it.

The government is cracking down on bad English in advance of the 2008 Olympics, on the grounds that signs such as ""Careful Landslip Attention Security" are somehow embarrassing.

Now, I know I’ve been a little preachy about tolerance for language differences. I’ve suggested that it’s rude and wrong to laugh at anyone who makes the effort to speak a second language.  And it is.

But signs are different.  They don’t mind if you laugh at them.

Besides, English is a ridiculously difficult language with almost incomprehensible spelling. It can come out kind of funny even when it’s translated perfectly. (Try explaining the phrase "pretty ugly" to a non-native speaker.)

So, go ahead. Laugh before the translation police take away all the funny signs.

(My colleague Paul Stern points out an NPR story on this topic that is very funny.)


2 thoughts on “Bad English Is Fun English

  1. John

    I don’t know if this quite fits your topic, but it’s not only when I try to speak a second language do funny circumstances occur; sometimes just trying to communicate in the same language I’ve managed to mangle things.
    I was in London eating dinner at a very hip noodle shop called Wagamama, very modern, long benches where everyone sits together, rock music pumping, and waiters with handheld computers for order taking. I’m listening to the music, and there’s a song I really like, so I ask the waiter if he knows who the singer is. He tells me, and I cannot understand what he says. I ask him again, and again I have no idea what he is trying to tell me. I cannot fathom what the problem is, he’s speaking English, so am I, and he seems to understand me perfectly well. So I pull out my trusty notepad and pen that I carry when I travel, and ask him to write down this seemingly incomprehensible name. He writes it down for me and hands the pad back, I look at it, and it says, “Madonna”!

  2. Maryanne

    My personal favorites: In Nairobi, the sign to “Deem your lights” at the entrance to a parking lot is across the street from “Lillie’s Intercity Hair Saloon”.
    Our Siswati language teacher (an English teacher in the local school) in Swaziland told us that in Siswati, “i” is always pronouced “ee” as in “ill”. Here in Madagascar, you have a choice of learning British, American or Kenyan English. I guess that in Kenyan – which may be the “African standard” – English, eels are always sick!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *