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China cracks down on bad English in signs

People browse a clothing store in Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street in Guangzhou, China, on November 29, 2013.
Brent Lewin | Bloomberg via Getty Images
People browse a clothing store in Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street in Guangzhou, China, on November 29, 2013.

China will introduce a national standard for the use of English language on public signage, in its latest bid to say farewell to widely mocked – and often widely loved – poor translations and "Chinglish".

The new policy, which comes into effect on December 1, will establish guidelines for English translations in 13 areas, including transport, health care, education and financial services.

It will also include standardized translations for 3,500 commonly used phrases for public information, as well as names of famous food dishes from mooncakes to daoxiao noodles and bean curd, a government press release said on Wednesday.

Odd translations into English, teasingly referred to as "Chinglish", have long been a common sight in China, even spawning dedicated websites.

An English sign in a park instructs children how to play on a 'bounce bed' - meaning 'trampoline' - in Beijing, China, on April 11, 2007.
Natalie Behring | Bloomberg via Getty Images
An English sign in a park instructs children how to play on a 'bounce bed' - meaning 'trampoline' - in Beijing, China, on April 11, 2007.

While many find them entertaining, they "damage the country's image" while posing challenges for the "development of a multilingual society" and cause social issues, according to the state-run People's Daily newspaper.

The new standard – jointly issued by the country's Standardisation Administration, Ministry of Education, and General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine – will prioritize proper grammar and style, the People's Daily reported.

Words and expressions that are rare, discriminatory or hurtful, or could "contain content that damages the image of China or other countries" will be discouraged or banned.

The policy also cautioned against direct translations, which have often been blamed for oddities.

Tian Shihong, director of the Standardisation Administration, described the new standard as an important public service aimed at elevating China's soft power and international image, according to a government statement.

An oddly worded English sign hangs in a neighborhood in Beijing, China, on April 11, 2007.
Natalie Behring | Bloomberg via Getty Images
An oddly worded English sign hangs in a neighborhood in Beijing, China, on April 11, 2007.

Public signs in English are a good way to encourage tourists, "particularly if they are correct," said Bernard Spolsky, a linguistics professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, adding that mistranslations can also be attractive. The plan to improve English, however, accompanies China's recognition of globalization and its push to develop a national educational framework for teaching English, he added.

"Its effectiveness will clearly depend on the availability of good translators; the warning against literal translation is a wise one," Spolsky said.

For years, China has sought to fix mistranslated signs, with efforts redoubled after Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Some memorable examples have included a well-intentioned sign along a major Beijing thoroughfare cautioning people "To Take Notice of Safe; The Slippery are Very Crafty".

But some were more offensive, with the city's Park of Ethnic Minorities once being translated as "Racist Park".

The welcome sign hanging above the entrance to 'Alien's Street' shopping center on May 15, 2007 in Beijing, China.
Andrew Wong | Getty Images
The welcome sign hanging above the entrance to 'Alien's Street' shopping center on May 15, 2007 in Beijing, China.

A month after winning the Olympics bid in 2001, the capital's municipal government attempted to tackle the problem. A year later, the Beijing Tourism Bureau had launched a hotline for people to call in tips about "bad English", the state-run China Daily reported.

In 2007, Beijing introduced a local standard for English translations in public.

People reacted to news of the new national standard with a mixture of celebration and nostalgia.

One Twitter user applauded the planned standards, saying they would "help avoid misunderstandings and abuse".

But for Ray Kwong, senior adviser to the University of Southern California's US-China Institute, there was a twinge of sadness.

"Bad translations on signage, menus and whatnot have been part of China's charm since I first visited 30-something years ago," he said.

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