Posted June 4, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Photo Travelogues

Chinglish 101: Five Secrets to Understanding Demon Bird Moth-Balls

If Americans love one thing more than looking at silly things on the Internet, it’s getting really, super offended at silly things on the Internet. So before I start this week’s Photo Travelogue, I’d like to preface by saying that the proceeding humor is not derived from racism or prejudice. It is derived from inexhaustible human idiocy—from unwitting individuals trying to make the leap between two of the world’s most disparate languages and plummeting halfway, freefalling into the linguistic abyss known as “Chinglish.”

In this week’s Photo Travelogue, I’m going to showcase the best, most spectacularly mistranslated signs and menus I found in China and then speculate how things went wrong, in an exploration of Mandarin Chinese—one of mankind’s most fascinating/confusing achievements.

It crossed my mind that if we learned why the banner in the grocery store said, “Spread To Fuck The Fruit,” it would ruin all the fun. But then I realized: I don’t care—I personally needed to know what was wrong with the people writing these signs.  I mean, even if my lunch menu was the result of poor translation software, what the fuck did they have to enter to get The Peasant Family Stir-Fries Flesh For A Short Time? What would I even be ordering? Who exactly is in the kitchen?

I needed to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Explanation #5: Criminal Noodle Pig & The Shifty Characters

Chinese people are laughing at our bad Mandarin just as heartily as we’re laughing at their botched English. Take for instance the unfortunate NBA player Shawn Marion, who thought it would be cool to get a tattoo of his nickname, ‘The Matrix,’ written in Chinese on his leg. Unfortunately for Marion, the guy at the tattoo parlor didn’t understand the nuances of Mandarin, so what he wound up with instead—emblazoned across his calf in permanent ink for all eternity—were the characters 魔鳥樟, which mean “Demon Bird Moth-Balls.”

The line between comedy and tragedy is thin, especially for those Americans who think they can tattoo their initials or names in exotic Chinese characters. Instead of getting “KFM” or “Clara,” these unwitting individuals are winding up with tattoos that say “Hiding Coffin Man,” or, “Criminal Noodle Pig.”

This isn’t just a common occurrence—this is every single “initials-in-Chinese” tattoo, I swear.

Mandarin Chinese is a pictorial language, written with stylized symbols (called characters) that represent words. There is no alphabet. While some characters might resemble a sound from our alphabet (if you really, really want them to), it would be extravagantly stupid to relate 26 alphabetic sounds with 100,000 characters (40,000 in common use, though the average Mandarin speaker will only grasp about 5,000 in their lifetime).

So, when Marquis Daniels (of NBA Pacers fame) tattooed his initials using three arbitrarily chosen Chinese characters, he ended up with a tattoo on his forearm that looked totally cool and badass. Unfortunately it said, “Healthy Woman Roof.”

Explanation #4: A Sodomy of Meaning

Most small businesses in China produce their English signs with Google Translate, which causes a great deal of problems. Trying to translate English to Mandarin with a language program is like trying to perform brain surgery with a woodchipper—it looks like it’s working, but you end up with a mess and one party walks away confused.

Unlike Mandarin, English is a static language. If I gave you a written instruction to “d-r-y the soapy baby,” you would know to dry the baby, because those three letters can only spell dry. You wouldn’t, for instance, read it as, “rape the soapy baby,” which can’t be said for Mandarin, in which characters change meanings depending on their context and tonal pitch. The character 干 can mean “dry” with a rising pitch, but if spoken with a falling-rising pitch, it would mean “fuck.” And so, because translation software can’t infer context or pitch, you end up with masterpieces like this:

Explanation #3: Incomprehensible-Land

If Chinese children had to memorize thousands of characters for every new proper noun and name, how would they have enough mental energy to go to work and make plastic toys for Western children?

*~*~*~ A joke!~*~*~ Which was admittedly offensive…

Good thing Backpackology’s banned in China!

It’s too complicated to devise a new character for every unique name, so Mandarin speakers use compound-descriptions instead. For instance: the Mandarin word for America is Meiguo (美国), which means “Beautiful-Land.” England is Yingguo (英国), which means “Brave-Land.” Meanwhile, Afghanistan is called Afuhan (阿富汗), which unfortunately means, “Abundant Sweat.”

This same rule applies to menu items. The noodle dish below is supposed to resemble small fish (but only for people who have never actually seen a small fish before):

Explanation #2: Poetic Failure

It makes sense that a pictorial language would lend itself well to poetry and calligraphy, though Mandarin’s expressive visual element is difficult for foreigners to appreciate. In fact, poetry is so instilled in Chinese writing that often public signs and notices will be written as lyrical implications, instead of as outright messages.

For instance, a sign in Mandarin might read, “The grass is smiling at you, please be kind.” A good translator would simplify this to, “Keep off the grass,” because for literal-minded English speakers the presence of smiling grass might raise alarm.

But many lazy business owners simply take their elegant haikus are then jam them through Babelfish, transforming their simple notices into the ramblings of a four-year-old meth addict.

Explanation #1: The Communist Lobster Swindle

Despite all the hurdles of translating Mandarin to English, it seems incomprehensible that the seafood dish 饕餮龍蝦餐 could wind up on a menu as, “Exterminate Capitalism Lobster Package.”

This particular Beijing menu was supposed to read, “Gourmand Lobster Meal,” and while the characters for “Gourmand” (饕餮) could also be translated to “Glutton,” or “Taotie” (a mythical creature), it would need to be in a different context and pitch. Unless the lobster is actually plotting against the West, coming up with “Exterminate Capitalism” by accident is linguistically impossible.

Other enigmatic mistranslations abound in China—warning labels that read, “Keep Knife Out of Children,” or an English-subtitled DVD of ‘The Queen,’ in which Helen Mirren reveals that her “ovaries are full with goldfish cracker.”

The Beijing government, which is striving to project itself as a cutting-edge, international city of tomorrow, has launched a serious crack down on silly menus and signs. Since the Olympics in 2008, these linguistic novelties are sadly disappearing.

But they still persist and they always will—as long as there exists the vast divide between Mandarin and English; as long there exists the disastrous fruits of Google Translate; as long as there exists—as in the case of the goldfish Queen and the ant-Capitalist lobster—unscrupulous, dickhead foreign translators who know they can write whatever they want and think its funny.

While these unethical foreigners might be making the problem worse, terrorizing local business owners, and undermining the legitimacy of China’s capital city—I thank them for it.

They will always, always be funny.


For more on China, check out the Photo Travelogues, “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo,” or “Going South on China: A Panda Hunt”

To hear a funny story of the language barrier blowing up in my face, check out my favorite travel tale from Burma, “The Wrong Pancake

To learn how to deal with the language barrier when planning your trip, head over to the travel tip, “Culture Shock, Travel Challenges, and The Order of Countries

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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.