As a complete beginner at Chinese when I arrived in Shanghai for the NSLI-Y program, one of my small consolations was that I was often able to pick out English translations among the endless sea of unfamiliar characters that swarmed towards me from signs and shopfronts. Internationally-minded Chinese cities like Shanghai make a strong effort to be accessible and, dare I say, livable for the hundreds of expats and Lǎowài (老外) like me who would be hopelessly lost if forced to navigate everyday life with only Chinese characters for reference. With that in mind, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to see at least a few English words pretty much everywhere it mattered for survival purposes, like grocery stores and public signage and transportation systems.
However, as a natural consequence of switching between languages as different as Chinese and English, the translations are sometimes a little…off. From the wildly inaccurate to downright hilarious, the awkward broken sentences, strange phrases and misspelled words of “Chinglish” can be commonly seen throughout China and are so beloved by English-speaking travelers that there are entire websites dedicated to spreading this particular brand of intercultural humor to all corners of the internet.
I was sure to keep an eye out for great “Chinglish” specimens throughout my NSLI-Y trip, and now to show you what I’m talking about, I’ll share photos of a few of my favorites!
Most “Chinglish” I found was simple misspellings, often turning into great made-up words like “grocety” and “bobacco” and placed in innocuous locations that you might not otherwise notice in passing:
The second variation of “Chinglish” you’ll encounter in China is the botched translation jobs, which can be great language learning opportunities for nerds like me and great laughing opportunities for the rest of us. On my way through a shopping street in the Nanjing Lu area of downtown Shanghai, I stumbled upon a whole souvenir stand full of wallets with quirky phrases, and I couldn’t help but stop to take a closer look. In true Chinese language student style, I tried my hand at translating these phrases myself to see how far off the clunky English counterparts are, and it turns out that the English phrases are actually pretty literal translations as far as I can tell. Perhaps the original phrases make more sense in Chinese? Or were they confusing to begin with? With Chinglish you never know.
And finally, for my favorite type of Chinglish, the signs that are completely inexplicable. Maybe they had decent, understandable intentions but end up coming out just plain strange. This is the type of sign that is just oddly translated in a way that gives it a a different meaning, or even the randomly placed or out of context sign that you would never find in the U.S., making it that much more awesome when you do see one with a particularly funny message. The three I included here all happen to be by public bathrooms, often a high-risk area for funny Chinglish sightings, but it’s best to be prepared for these anywhere, anytime; If there’s anything I’ve learned from China, it’s to, as they say, “expect the unexpected”.
Watch out, Avengers, there’s a new superhero on the block…and yes, there was also a “Toilet Man”.
One of my favorites. The last two characters advertise a restaurant…surely there’s a misunderstanding here somewhere, I hope…
And finally, to end on an oddly encouraging note with this accurate translation of a strange restroom sign. I don’t know why it would be necessary to unite people over their shared dreams in the bathroom, but there you have it, China signage at its finest. I’m looking forward to a continuation of this “Chinglish” saga from my time in Guangzhou and Beijing!
Have you ever encountered any funny translations? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!