Once Bittern, Twice Shy


China’s public signage, as the friends of many serial email forwarders have discovered is second perhaps only to that of Japan in its ability to delight, baffle, and send native English speakers into spasms of hilarity. So when I rolled into a restaurant in Shanghai recently, I was expecting to be entertained. The menu didn’t disappoint. Listed were items such as “diaphragm with its companion”, “burned meat cake” and, perhaps most memorably, “multi-consistent foods with extraordinary bittern”. The last one in particular provoked great whooping howls of grammar-motivated disbelief on the part of me, my companion and my companion’s diaphragm. But the howls stopped when I returned to my hotel, jumped online, punched the word “bittern” into Google and was met with this definition: “Bittern, n. A wading bird; a marsh bird of the heron family.”

The problem, it turned out, wasn’t with the translation. The problem was with me. I had made the classic tourist’s mistake: I had travelled to China without knowing what a “bittern” was.

Over the days that followed I became struck by the thought that these seeming mistranslations offered a window into the enduring idiocy of English. Take instant noodles. In China, these have been rendered as “convenient noodles”. But how silly is this, really? When they’re sitting in your cupboard, unused and waiting for rehydration, there’s nothing especially “instant” about the noodles. But they remain, at all times, “convenient”. Or consider the sign I spotted in a museum in Beijing: “Smoking is prohibited if you will be fined RMB 60.” The idea of a prohibition coming into effect only after a fine has been imposed – rather than the fine following a contravention of the prohibition, as the one-track-mind legislators of the West would have it – has unquestionable policy appeal, from both a law and order and revenue-raising perspective.
As our understanding of the logic of Chinglish deepens over the coming years, the opportunities for meaningful exchange – between China and the world, as between humans and bitterns – will only increase. A world where grammatical rules are not just consistent, but multi-consistent, is not far away.

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