by Jen O Neill
The development and manufacturing of many of the hardware products I document have been outsourced to Chinese companies. They work closely with our in-house engineers and product managers to develop customised products for our global customers. We release dozens of such products a year. The technology of these products is changing so quickly that it would be difficult for us to develop so many products in-house ourselves. Competitors also outsource their development and manufacturing for these products. See our earlier blog post “Working with OEMs”.
The Chinese engineers write generic manuals, which they then send to us to customise for our versions of the products. Their manuals are written in Chinglish. English strongly influenced by Chinese. They can have strange terms, long-winded sentences, missing grammar, simplistic mixed up verb formats, curious word order.
I’m working with an English that’s been contaminated by a language I don’t know: Chinese.
The infamous web photos of China’s Chinglish signage are amusing to read. A 70-page manual of it can be challenging. And fascinating.
So I’ve been reading up on how Chinese is written. Knowing some basic Chinese grammar helps to untangle the Chinglish and makes it easier to rewrite it into English. I’ve become curious about Chinese.
General information about Chinese
Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Instead it uses characters, called hanzi. There are around 40,000 characters in the language and as a beginner you need to learn around 2,000 to 3,000 just to be able to read a newspaper, for example.
No articles or prepositions. No plural or singular either
Chinese nouns don’t have articles such as “the” or “a” so they can be often missing in Chinglish. Nor does Chinese have a plural form. It’s implied in the context. As a result there are often mistakes in number in the Chinglish:
Chinglish: Can’t Add More User!
English: You can’t add any more users.
What’s with all the commas?
When you look at a text written in Chinese you’ll notice that there are a lot of commas as shown in this image.
Unlike English, the comma splice is frequently used in Chinese. Clauses are linked by commas where in English we’d use separate sentences. This means that when Chinese is poorly translated, we can often have a long paragraph of just a single sentence. Chinglish can be full of commas:
Chinglish: The enable status of camera already changed, device will reboot automatically, please enter the remote configuration after reboot is complete.
English: The camera reboots automatically when its parameters are modified. When rebooting is complete, configure the remote parameters.
(You’ll also notice that there are no breaks between words in Chinese.)
Another example of Chinglish written as a single sentence:
Chinglish: The whole screen is divided into 22*18 panes, you can use “ ↑ “ “ ↓ “ “ → “ “ ← “ keys to move the yellow pane to your hope position and press “ EDIT “ key, the yellow pane will be turned into red, then you can use “ ↑ “ “ ↓ “ “ → “ “ ← “ keys to extend the red pane.
Often the first thing I’ll do when I receive a text from the engineers is to quickly look through it to see if there are a lot of commas. This gives me a rough idea of the state of the “English” and how much rework may be required.
Past, present or future? It depends on the context
Chinese has no verb tenses. The tense depends on its context. To indicate that something has happened in the future or past, for example, time context words such as “yesterday” or “next year” are often added to the sentence. And unlike English, the time words come before the verb in Chinese.
Verb errors are common in Chinglish:
Chinglish: This action trigger local audible on box.
English: This action will trigger the unit’s buzzer.
Chinglish: The log items are more than 200 pieces, please short query range!
English: There are more than 200 log items. Please specify a smaller query range.
Chinglish: ESC button represents “Cancel”.
English: Press ESC to Cancel.
How did “Rule” become “Handle”?
The Wikipedia web page on Chinglish cites several possible causes for texts being written in Chinglish such as errors in Chinese dictionaries, no native English speakers checking the text, and the use of translation software.
None of our Chinese engineers are fluent in English. Their English is often a literal translation of the Chinese. They’re clearly thinking in Chinese when writing English, which produces Chinglish. Although I’ve never asked, I assume that they use translation software when writing their text as they often use the wrong synonym of a term or simply use a term that apparently has no logic for the context.
Chinglish: Modem drop off.
English: The modem is disconnected.
Chinglish: The image sticks.
English: The image freezes.
Each Chinese character represents a word or concept and often serves multiple purposes. Their meaning depends on context. So translating each character individually can easily produce an inaccurate or confusing result in English.
This excellent article by Mark Liberman discusses literal translation and explains the process of how “Disposable coffee cup” on a sign became translated as “A time sex thing” using translation software.
The biggest problem I have understanding Chinglish is with such mistranslated terms. One example is “handle” being used instead of “rule” in the manuals (such as when you configure the rules for how a system should respond to an alarm situation). One example:
Chinglish: View Tampering Handle.
English: View tampering rules.
I couldn’t see the link between “rule” and “handle” until I read Mark’s article. I entered the Chinese term for “rule” (taken from a software string) into Google Translate and it proposed the English term, “Deal with”, and several synonyms (processing, handling, handle, process). No “Rule” but a probable explanation as to why “Handle” appears in the manuals.
So I’m now wondering if the Chinese translation software tool used by the engineers lists “Handle” at or near the top of the English term options provided, making it an easy selection. If you don’t really know the target language well, you tend to select the first word the translation tool proposes.
I’ve tried this test with other peculiar English terms in the manuals when I have the corresponding Chinese term. I now have a better understanding of why some strange English terms have probably been used. Google Translate and the other translation software tools available on the web are useful tools and are continually improving. But they aren’t infallible.
In the meantime, my interest in Chinese grows.
For more information on Chinese grammar, see Wikipedia’s entry on Chinese grammar, grammar information from chinesenotes.com and a learner FAQ from the Chinese Grammar Wiki.
And what’s my elevator speech?
I enable English, natively.