May 26, 2007

English, with Chinese characteristics

Filed under: language — Kim @ 6:30 pm

A few recent readings have got me thinking again about Chinglish.

First off there was a particularly choice example of the kind of comical translation catastrophe we’ve all come to know and love in China. PeerSee are good at spotting these, and this one’s a classic

wale wank

And, as they say,

Blue whales are reputed to have the largest penises in the animal kingdom. Just knowing this causes performance anxiety for them. Sometimes you need to call in a professional.

Then there was a recent Guardian Education article which had this opening gambit

“I this essay focus on big developings in the colloquialisms of the Englishes,” begins a submission from one of your students. You might admire the linguistic verve and try to focus on the substance of the argument, but what about when it comes to grading?

According to an important report released today by Demos, ‘As You Like It: Catching up in an age of Global English’, any negative response you might have to this student’s use of the English language would be an indicator of a much bigger problem: a deep-rooted ‘linguistic imperialism’ that will ultimately lead to the UK’s economic decline and shrinking role in the world. The made-up example here is actually a typical piece of what’s known as Chinglish – a variety of English affected by the very different sentence structure and rules of grammar used in Chinese languages that is used to one extent or another by millions of Chinese speakers of English.

And finally there was this analyis of Peter Hessler’s latest book, Oracle Bones

He might just be the only Western writer ever to squeeze literary effect from the mangled English produced by his ex-students – carefully deployed, these extracts offer windows into the dreams and pressure points of the upcountry soul. Best of the lot is William Jefferson Foster: his English is hot, crude and spiky like Sichuan beef stew.

Different samples, different issues. A good laugh, an academic Aunt Sally argument, and a fair observation that literature should be concerned with rendering and not judging.

As for my offering, well, I was recently asked to check a popular Chinese published English idioms book. It’s basically a sound book, but I was asked to proofread for anything that might sound outdated, unnatural, or outright wrong.

Correcting the grammar is easy enough, but some of the stylistic infelicities are puzzling and left me wondering what, if anything to do. What, for example, would you make of the following dialogue?

A: Is your mother all right?
B: She’s feeling better now. Thank you for taking my mom to the hospital.
A: It’s a pleasure.

I felt a little linguistically queasy after reading that one. “It’s a pleasure” taking your mother to hospital…well, I don’t think a native speaker would say it, but is there any point correcting it?

then this

A: He must have quarreled with his wife very often.
B: Why? How can you draw such a conclusion?
A: Because he’s very easily agitated in our company.
B: He’s a neighbour of mine. I’m under the impression that he and his wife live a very happy life.

This dialogue is close to the kind of thing that inspired Ionesco to write “The Bald Prima Donna”, a play he wrote after learning English from textbooks full of stilted dialogues. But it does have a certain kind of antiquated charm to it. I can imagine a couple of Victorian mathemeticians conducting this exchange, and why correct that? I would like to encourage old-fashioned polysyllabic courtesy.

Same goes for this one

A: Can you oblige me with an umbrella?
B: I’m sorry, but I don’t have one myself.
A: Thanks anyway.

Yes, please oblige me…haven’t heard that for a while and it needs to be revived. 1 billion speakers should do it.

1 Comment

  1. […] Kim from East-West Station (I like that blog, by the way) posted this nice reflection on ‘English, with Chinese characteristics’, commonly known as […]

    Pingback by Chinglish (3) « Stranded on the Largest Island — May 31, 2007 @ 1:16 am

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