Everybody is familiar with the phenomenon of "Engrish", even if they
aren't familiar with the word itself. "Engrish" is just English -
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
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
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
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:
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.