First of all, I want to apologize for posting two posts on December 11 – as if to make up for lost time! I did not mean to and had intended to space out their publication. Anyway, if you have not read these yet, please scroll down or click here and here.
Second of all, this post will be much less thoughtful and much more puerile than either of those. Mea culpa, obviously, since I’m the author. This post is my version of the all-but-obligatory post in expat blogs about the use of English in foreign countries and why, oh why, do so few people think or consider it valuable to hire a native English speaker before titling things or making signs.
Most everyone is, by now, familiar with Chingrish (a.k.a. Engrish), a contraction of “Chinese” and “English” referring specifically to the hilarious malapropisms and unintended innuendoes created by direct or improper translation from the former to the latter. Growing up in Hong Kong and then living in Beijing, I was of course surrounded by examples, and these were a common and consistent source of pleasure. A favorites that stands out in my memory is the Lee Kee Boot and Shoe Company, but there is at least one whole tumblr-style site dedicated to Chingrish.
Why Chingrish remains so prevalent throughout China and even Hong Kong (despite 100 years of British colonial rule) became more apparent to me prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which I covered as a blogger for Yale. In the lead-up to the event, touted as “Beijing’s Coming Out Party” or deb ball, the government wanted to burnish Beijing’s international image and therefore hired, according to news reports, no fewer than 10,000 locals to clean up the city’s Chingrish. However, they supposedly did not hire a single non-Chinese person (despite the many Americans living in Beijing itching for an extra dollar), and while some of those hired may have been native or near-native English speakers, not all of them were, and it showed. There was still plenty of hilarious Chingrish for Olympic spectators to enjoy while they waited in line for events.
But bad English, it turns out, is hardly the purview solely of the Chinese. Take, for instance, SCAT Air Company based in Shymkent, southern Kazakhstan. My theory is that these types of mistakes happen because of a certain arrogance on the part of (at least) Chinese and Kazakhs about their English-language abilities. I’ve noticed a certain trend to over-confidence and over-estimation. This is hardly to say that my Russian is any good or that my Kazakh exists at all – but I would not dream of naming a company without checking with a native speaker first, and therein lies the difference.
Despite all of the above, however, I’m willing to forgive the Chinese and the Kazakhs because 1, it may be harder than I imagine to find a competent English speaker, and I’m sure that even in situations where companies desire to check, many translators or “consultants” misrepresent their knowledge and abilities to their clients; and 2, it is amusing to me. I’m less willing, though, to forgive the Europeans. Europe, after all, include at least two native English-speaking countries and several countries, like Denmark, in which citizens speak better English than I do. How, then, did they end up naming an organization EUNIC – the European Union National Institutes for Culture? I realize this is not actually how one spells “eunuch,” but the homonym is unmissable even when one only sees the word in print. The organization’s full name, when written out, does not even flow well, suggesting they reordered words in order to make a handy acronym, and yet they still came up with EUNIC.
I discovered EUNIC while working in the Kasteev State Museum of the Arts here in Almaty because one of my co-workers there had a bookmark from there in which EUNIC was printed over and over. I was, needless to say, curious.