Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Engrish and its reverse

Everybody is familiar with the phenomenon of "Engrish", even if they aren't familiar with the word itself. "Engrish" is just English - albeit with "obvious" mistakes in grammar, and the odd misspelled word. People encounter them in instruction manuals, or in video games or (if you travel abroad) even in signs or pamphlets by government or commercial companies. 

Witness the scare quotes around "obvious"? Well, they may be "obvious" to native English speakers, and (less commonly) to other Indo-European speakers. But these mistakes aren't bloody obvious to others on this globe - many of whom live in Asia. Trust me: I'm an English teacher. It's hard enough to get students to use the right verb structure depending on whether the subject is singular or plural. We're talking about "I was..." versus "they were". When they've got this rule in their head, then they're confronted with the apparent counter-case of "everybody was". And articles - the grief that students go through to understand these strange beasts of "a/an" and "the".

In most circumstances, I can tolerate Engrish. As a teacher, I encounter it everyday. I do try and correct it (that's part of my job), but I always anticipate it. However, seeing the same thing from companies is a bit of a worry.

I am in a relationship with a director of a graphic design company over here. Many of her clients want their brochures, paraphernalia, business cards and other sundry materials printed in English as well as Vietnamese. Foreign clients are always appreciated. However, it is always distressing to see how many elementary translation mistakes there are. That's why I asked - nay, insisted - that any English writing she lays out is run past  me for a look-see. Generally, the small start-ups can't afford a translator, so they ask an employee or a mate who "knows" English, but isn't exactly fluent in it. The result can be a disaster. For example, adjectives go after the noun in Vietnamese, and the translator sometimes carries this into his English. Generally, my role is to look over their attempt, and try to clean up their mistakes in grammar, spelling, and (all too often), punctuation. Usually, the client understands this. And if they balk, and decide to go with their problematic original attempt - well, it's their ass. But most want to do their best, and good luck to them.

The phenomenon of "Engrish" - like many other trends - started in Japan, as can be seen on Engrish.com. Since Japan is so much richer than Việt Nam, and correspondingly more able to handle translation expenses, there must be other reasons that Engrish is so widespread there. According to its FAQ

Most of the Engrish found on Engrish.com is not an attempt to communicate - English is used as a design element in Japanese products and advertising to give them a modern look and feel (or just to "look cool"). There is often no attempt to try to get it right, nor do the vast majority of the Japanese population (= consumers) ever attempt to read the English design element in question (the girl wearing the “Spread Beaver” shirt for example, had no idea what it said until a foreigner pointed it out to her). There is therefore less emphasis on spell checking and grammatical accuracy...

Aah, yes: pretension. That's an reason I understand very well, if not that sympathetic to. There's definitely a "cool factor" with English among the Vietnamese youth, albeit reduced - both languages share the same Latin alphabet. But pretension is certainly widespread among Westerners. So could you foresee the reverse thing happening among the would-be trend setter of an English-speaking persuasion? Think carefully. There's a reason I split the quoted paragraph in two:

...(note: the same can be said for the addition of Japanese or Chinese characters to hats, shirts and tattoos found in the US or Europe).

If you answered "yes", two thumbs up for understanding your fellow humans. This brings me to the fine site of hanzi smatter : 一知半解: "Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Han Zi; or 汉字) in Western culture." Grammar mistakes are common, but  the pathetic thing is that the ideograms are often upside-down, reversed, or missing a few strokes. That's one quantum leap beyond your simple spelling mistake! Examples are given from T-shirt, techno, and even tattoos. Even those who should know better are guilty, as can be seen from the front-cover for the Lonely Planet Guide Book for China. Then there's the sad case of some hefty Aussie lad walking around with the ideograms for Dishonour before Death on his arm. I think that wasn't his attention.

My father told me about this a few years ago. He used to work at a large Japanese computing firm, and even went to the trouble of learning Japanese. (Japanese shares quite a few ideograms with Chinese.) Because of this, he knew that some of the ideographic tattoos visible at the local gym weren't what they purported to be. He pointed this out once to one cockuped-tattoo-bearing woman bearing the Chinese for "Dream" or "Peace" or "Smile" or similar sentiment. She was extremely unappreciative. Could it be because she was indifferent to this, could it be because she knew she had been conned, or could it be because she thought she was insulted?

I don't know. Dad isn't an insulting guy. But it's a little disturbing how little thought people put into adding something "New Agey" permanently to your skin, and making a mess of it. A little bit of pre-checking would have saved a lot of (literal) pain - but like a lot of the New Age, illusion - or pretension - trumps reality. Being me, I'm less tolerant to this kind of mistake than the Engrish produced by the companies and administrations of Việt Nam. At least the later are trying to put food on their dinner table, and I'm not going to begrudge them for their mistakes in the sometimes difficult grammar of English.