MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now picture this, you're in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. The sign in the restroom says ladies room in Chinese and in English it says gentlemen. English experts are scouring the capital for this sort of linguistic gaffe, replacing road signs, rewriting restaurant menus and flipping through dictionaries. But as NPR's Anthony Khun reports, there is no need to worry about the city losing all of its unique translations.
ANTHONY KHUN: Some of the translations here are goofy, some are down right obscene, others you just can't make heads or tails of. It's all just part of being a foreigner in Beijing. But things are changing fast. The theme park devoted to ethnic minorities is no longer labeled Racist Park. The huge red neon sign that once read Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease now reads the Dongda Hospital of Proctology.
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KHUN: Credit for some of the clean up goes to Dr. David Tool(ph), a former Army colonel from Charleston, South Carolina. He now calls Beijing home, and he advices the city government on language matters. He is walking down Beijing's main shopping street in a snazzy red and black Chinese silk shirt.
Dr. DAVID TOOL: People ask me is Beijing - all the signs of Beijing will be completely correct by the time of the Olympics? And the answer has got to be no. One reason is the owner of the Face Powder Noodle Restaurant refuses to change it.
KHUN: Written one way, (foreign language spoken) means noodles. Written another way it could be face powder. The Chinese language is full of words that sound similar, making both for puns and mistranslations. Many gaffes occur when non-English speakers translate idioms word-for-word or select a wrong meaning from among many in a dictionary.
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KHUN: We stopped in at a famous restaurant called the House of Pines and Cranes, where Dr. Tool peruses the menu. He says menus here often contain typographical errors.
Dr. TOOL: The worst typo they have on a menu is when you take C-A-R-P, carp, or C-R-A-B, crab, and you write it as crap. So on the menus you often see succulent, juicy crap.
KHUN: Not to mention, pea soup spelled P-E-E or a Szechuan dish called mouthwatering Chicken, often rendered as saliva Chicken. Liu Yang is an official in-charge of Beijing's Herculean effort to cleanse the city of public malapropisms. At a recent press conference, Liu said the city has replaced thousands of signs and issued standard translations for use in sports venues and other facilities.
Mr. LIU YANG (Deputy Director, Foreign Affairs Office, China): (Foreign language spoken)
KHUN: Although these are voluntary standards, he said, they've been useful in remedying the chaos and mistakes on bilingual signs in public places. They've also helped to make Beijing a more a cosmopolitan city ahead of next year's Olympics, he added.
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KHUN: For Beijingers, blenders such as translating pay toilet as collect fee W.C. are understandably no laughing matter. They're an affront to their civic pride.
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KHUN: Twenty-nine-year-old Lee Xing(ph) and her husband run a sign shop across from the Forbidden City in Central Beijing. She says she leaves the translating to the customers who order the signs.
Ms. LEE XING: (Through translator) China is becoming a more international place. So Chinese and English translations have to match each other. We definitely can't have these mistakes. If we went to your country and found your Chinese so laughable, we'd think, gee, this country is so unsophisticated.
KHUN: David Tool says that after six years of living in Beijing he doesn't find the bloopers so funny anymore.
Dr. TOOL: Sometimes we feel embarrassed for the Chinese oh, my gosh, how could they be so careless? How could they make a mistake? And how could they show such ignorance (unintelligible) But the other thing that gets me about it is, I don't want people to be distracted by the signs, you know, by the wording of a signs. I want them, especially in the museums, in the culture sites, I want them to read the message there and learn about the culture.
KHUN: Then again, crazy translations are just part of the fun of studying of foreign language. Chairman Mao famously instructed students to study hard and make progress everyday. Foreign students of Chinese often translate it literally as good, good study, day, day up.
Anthony Khun, NPR News, Beijing.