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Volunteers in Xi'an Tackle English Woes
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"Though the Chinese characters are the same, this chukou (export) does not mean that chukou (exit)."



That was the message a team of volunteers to correct Chinese-English translation mistakes gave the manager of a supermarket recently in Xi'an, the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.


Above the door of the supermarket was a sign with the word "export," which should be "exit."


As a hot tourism destination, Xi'an is paying more attention to the English translations on shop signs, street names and other things. Students, teachers and residents all volunteers are going around the area, looking for and correcting such mistakes.


Another example: "de," which means "moral," and "xin," which means "honest." But they're the same characters used for "Germany" and "letter" (the thing sent by post).


It's not unusual for a building in China to be named for noble concepts, but the name has no bearing on what the building is used for. Even so, to call it the German Letter Building in English was completely wrong.


"This is a typical mistake in English-Chinese translation which translates the Chinese characters word by word with their surface meaning," said Zhao Jing, a middle school English teacher and a team member.


On the first day of the mission, the team found 45 mistakes around Xi'an some small ("park," which should have been "parking"), some misplaced letters ("China store," which should have been "chain store") and some way off ("wine building," which should have been "restaurant").


Some curiosities arose because of the differences between British and American English. Adele Edgeworth, a British tourist, said that when she saw the sign "subway to visit the Bell Tower," she expected the American interpretation, meaning an underground train to the site. Instead, it was merely an underground walkway, which is the British usage.


"Idiomatic English translation is very important to Xi'an, a city with tourism as its major industry, which not only provides foreign visitors with convenience, but also gives them a better understanding of local cultures and customs," said Ma Zhenwu, a professor and English expert at Shaanxi Technology University.


Ma, who is also the secretary-general of a local translation group, said it has been working on improving translations of streets, buildings and tourism spots, but his association is not a government agency and can't require anyone to correct the errors.


Zhou Junwen, an official with the city's civil affairs bureau, said that his bureau, in cooperation with the appropriate urban service department, will check road signs for translation mistakes and will adopt mandatory measures to correct them.


He said it's important to maintain a high language standard to reflect the city's image.  


(China Daily March 7, 2007)

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