The International Writers Magazine: When in China

Translation Treachery
C. Lee McKenzie

 If you're gearing up to attend the 2008 China Olympics, you might consider arming yourself with one of those dandy electronic translators. The Chinese are true marvels when it comes to rebuilding Beijing in time to meet the onslaught of tourists, but, with rare exceptions, they are as mono-lingual as most of us Yankees. Which is why you'll have some interesting encounters, not only in trying to ask your way back to a hotel you've totally misplaced but also in trying to obey the translated signs intended to help the linguistically challenged speakers of English.

I'm usually a pretty savvy traveler. I try to at least pretend to know what is going on around me, but in China all my sophistication dribbled out my shoes, and I turned into a, you know, T-shirted baseball-capped photo-tourist type. I snapped pictures of signs that either totally stumped me or made me leave the way I entered. "Why risk a fine?" I reasoned.

The parks offered the widest variety of opportunities to break the law. Consider for a moment what you should do when you read, "Don't enter the grass during it is nursed." I'm sure the park attendants believe me an illiterate dolt because I took a full five minutes to read this six word sign then took a picture as if I needed to give it further study. I usually drew a crowd in any case because blondes do that in China. I wonder if they cut me slack because they knew all those jokes about people like me with IQ deficiencies? I'll never know. My Chinese lexicon remained at three words: nihao and shie shie. I Q and deficiencies were simply too hard.

China parks are beautiful, and big, so there are any number of Kodak photo ops. The Chinese don't mark these like we do, so you're on your own. Now, that I'm going through my pictures, I'm somewhat disappointed to find I skipped the vistas and captured instead—signs picturesque. Two called out to my sensitive side:
We can't stand the sight of mattress fragrant grass.
Please take good care of the green life

Now how could I not do my best with this kind of oblique appeal to my better nature? One struck an ominous note: Don't treadon the grass. I think it was the treadon that gave it the bite. So I clicked and strolled on. I had a boat to catch.

My yuan in hand I purchased a ticket, queued up with a whole gaggle of other excursion-bound folk all anticipating a leisurely float across the lake. Then I spotted it. PLEASE SHOWU YOUR TILKET OR RARERS. This would take a while. I mustered my linguistic skills and deduced SHOWU and TILKET was a phonological issue and they meant show your ticket. This I could do, but my RARERS was nowhere to be found. And did it matter? No, except my curiosity will nag me until I find out what I could have shown had I known what it was.

Nothing soothes a weary traveler more than a boat on calm water. Put up your feet, grab a cold Tsingtao and watch the occasional flying fish hurl itself into the air. After an hour, I was ready to take on another hike and as it turned out there were more helpful signs to set me on the right path. Dear tourists: That's me, so, wanting to make the most of my experience, I read on.

There are a group of wild monkeys accounting about one hundred at large surrounding Puton Hill-Crescent Moon Hill and Fuxing Hill who frequently appear and disappear by the road and path or on the hillsides of the park. Those lovely wild monkeys have become a natural scene of the park and have attracted broad tourists very much. But among the monkeys, some time they attack on tourists casually. Therefore please keep a certain distance whenever you meet and watch the monkeys and do not to play with them and irritate them, so as to prevent any accident events occurring.
Thank you.

I appreciated their warning and if I were lucky enough to spy a wild monkey, I'd give it wide berth to be sure. My biggest concern was the reference to my broad tourist size. Maybe I'd forego the Tsingtao for a few days.

Chinese gardens are splashed with vermilion and butter-yellow flowers tucked among the greenery, but it's the stones that give these gardens their elegance and their connection to the past. They are the imposing nobles that control the garden design with authority and grace. As you may have gathered I'm smitten with gardens. Nothing pleases me more than a winding path or a bench that invites me to sit where plants, not people, are the crowds and ponds mirror the sky. China is the perfect place for a person like me because there's a garden on just about every corner and in-between. I'd spent several hours in this one garden, so having waxed botanical long enough, I was drawn to a magnificent piece of granite called the Jade Stone. The sign indicated that it was a relic of Emperor Hui Zong from the Song Dynasty, which means someone levered it into this position over a thousand years ago. It had born up well over the centuries. The wind, rain and pollution hadn't diminished its towering presence as far as I could see, but then the translator took his shot. The sign explained that the stone's "peculiarity is its slim appearance, transparence, wrinkle and leakage of water from the top to the bottom. This was the first time I was ever moved to perpetrate graffiti—a small word change or two and I could restore the Jade Stone's dignity. Better not, I reasoned and left the sign for others to ponder it as it was. On my way out the gate, Please don't letter up confirmed my wise decision.

My last night in China I spent in Shanghai. I'd already discovered a REPRESSED TOWEL in my bathroom, but by now I was on to this translator fellow and only felt a twinge of concern for the towel in a can on my bureau. I wanted to walk around the Bund, take some night shots of the river and eat a gelato to condition my stomach for stateside. I tossed my dead batteries into a container labeled 'collectible box for the scrat dry cell', without so much as a pause and hit the streets.

The city lights warmed the October night and the people walked along the river as they would on a hot summer evening. I drifted into the current of riverside strollers, enjoying the sounds of French, German, English and Cantonese floating past. The gelato I craved was just up Nanking Road—a lively concourse that jiggles your insides with color and sound—so I crossed under the Bund to search out my Italian treat. It was along Nanking Road that I encountered a new translator. This fellow must have lived in New York for a few months. He knew impact and he knew graphics. "SEX," the sign read. I snapped my photo and was off to eat gelato.

© C. McKenzie May 2006

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