Gaoxiong receives funding to upgrade the city’s English

The government of Gaoxiong (Kaohsiung) has recently secured funding from the Executive Yuan to

  • waste on so-called translation agencies that wouldn’t know real English if it bit them on the ass,
  • print up some signs on which the English is so small as to be almost unusable,
  • put up even more signs in a romanization system few people know but many think is ridiculous at best,
  • um, create an “English-friendly environment” in advance of the World Games, which will be held in the city in 2009.

The stories didn’t mention how much money will be involved in this. The project will be headed by the recently promoted Xǔ Lì-míng (許立明 / Xu Liming / Hsu Li-ming).

Let’s all hope the city does a much better job than is to be expected from past experience throughout Taiwan.


Beijing Olympics to use icons modeled after seal script

Danwei notes that Beijing’s Olympics committee has come up with its version of the icons for the sports of the games. These graphics are modeled after seal script, a style of writing that came to prominence about two thousand years ago.

images of icons for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China
Above are the icons for baseball, shooting, sailing, softball, cycling, and golf hockey.

Here’s part of how the committee describes the items:

Named “the beauty of seal characters” and with strokes of seal characters as their basic form, the Pictograms of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games integrate pictographic charm of inscriptions on bones and bronze objects in ancient China with simplified embodiment of modern graphics, making them recognizable, rememberable and easy to use.

Although seal script can still be seen on name chops (seals) and some calligraphy, few people can read it well if at all.

additional resources:

source: New Olympic Icons, Danwei, August 7, 2006

more on Beijing’s English and Pinyin signage

The plan to mix Pinyin and English on signage in Beijing is now official.

Orientations in road names should be in English, such as “MAIJIAPU East Rd.” This is unless it is part of the actual name, like “BEIWEI Rd.” [The “bei” in Beiwei means “north.”] However, road names starting with orientations should have them in initials only, for example, “E. CHANG’AN Ave.”

This regulation is the first part of a campaign to standardize English translations on public signs in Beijing. The campaign will extend to all tourist spots, commercial and cultural facilities, museums, subways, sports centers and hospitals in the city, the report said.

The use of “avenue” will be restricted for the time being to Chang’an Ave., Ping’an Ave, and Liangguang Ave.

A few terms will go untranslated: hutong (alley), li (lane), qu (district), and yuan (garden). Such terms are viewed as embodying Beijing’s culture (tǐxiàn Běijīng chéngshì wénhuà tèsè); the articles didn’t mention, however, that hutong is a loan word from Mongolian.

A few old standards will remain. “Tsinghua University” will remain as such; but road signs will read, for example, Qinghua South Rd.


Bei-Bei jing-jing wel-wel comes-comes you-you

Beijing has unveiled its five mascots for the 2008 Olympics, the Friendlies Fuwa. They are dubbed Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. Here’s Jingjing, the friendly PRC panda, with his gun. In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s an official image.

OK, back to language-related matters. These aren’t just saccharine names for cutesy figures: there’s a pattern. Note how each name is a doubled syllable, which is a common way to form affectionate nicknames in Mandarin. (My wife, for example, is named Hsin-chun, but many in her family refer to her as Hsin-hsin.)

Taking the first syllable of each of the mascot names yields “bei jing huan ying ni,” or, more properly, “Beijing huanying ni,” which is “Beijing welcomes you” in Mandarin. If tones are indicated this would be written Běijīng huānyíng nǐ; but tone indications are completely unnecessary here for easy comprehension of the meaning. Although Mandarin is a tonal language, most clearly written texts do not need to have all or even most tones indicated for comprehension by fluent speakers.

Let’s look at the sentence “Beijing huanying ni” when written in characters. It’s “北京欢迎你” in simplified Chinese characters. In traditional characters it would be written “北京歡迎你.” But the names of the mascots aren’t all written with these same characters. For that matter, not even all the tones are the same:

Beijing welcomes you mascot names
character tone character tone
běi bèi
jīng jīng
huān huān
yíng yíng

北北 (lit. “North-north”) just doesn’t make for a catchy mascot name. But, basically, the only way to use Chinese characters to indicate the third-tone bei sound of “Beijing” is with the 北 character. So the mascot namers went with a different character — and consequently a different tone, too. They opted for bèi.

By the way, readers of Chinese characters have no choice but be accustomed to characters being pronounced with a variety of tones. Some 80 percent of Chinese characters that have more than one pronunciation — and these are quite common — are associated with at least two tones.

Chinese does have a word pronounced bèibèi. It is written in characters thusly: 孛孛. The meaning is “radiant,” which sounds nice enough for a mascot name. But almost no one knows this old word. For that matter, most people don’t even know the obscure 孛 character and thus wouldn’t know it’s supposed to be pronounced bei. (Note how a character doesn’t have to have a large number of strokes to be obscure.)

Thus, 孛孛 obviously wouldn’t work. So the designers used a bèi that is rather more precious. When 贝 is doubled, the association is with baobei (treasure), as in something a mother might call her child (just as an Italian woman might sometimes fondly refer to her child as “tesoro”). Thus, an English translation of “Beibei” would be something like “Precious.” (Normally I’m opposed to translating names. But in this case some translation is appropriate, as these names are most certainly designed to be cute as a button and so should be revealed as such.)

Let’s move on to Jingjing. Using, say, the “proper” character for Beijing’s jing would yield 京京, which means “intense (of sorrow).”


I think how I stand alone,
And the sorrow of my heart grows intense. (tr. James Legge)

Even though that’s such an ancient term that almost no one would know it now, it’s probably still not the sort of thing Beijing’s Olympic planners would want as a mascot name. So 晶, which has the same pronunciation (including tone) as Beijing’s jing was selected. An English translation of “Jingjing” would be something like Crystal, or perhaps Sparkles.

Huan and ying are used unchanged. Indeed, Huanhuan is found as a personal name; an English version of this name would be “Joy.” But “Yingying” doesn’t translate well; “Welcome” is about the best I can think of at the moment.

With Nini, again we have a different character and a different tone. (Then there’s the selection of ni rather than the more polite form of nin. This might make an interesting entry by itself.)

Mandarin does have a word pronounced “nǐnǐ.” It means “luxuriant; exuberant; flourishing” — perhaps not entirely out of line for a name. But then comes the matter of the character; this word is written 苨苨. But 苨 is used only in 苨苨. Although in this case the phonetic part of the character (as opposed to the “radical”) is relatively clear, 尼, the character is nonetheless not nearly common enough for people to know whether it is pronounced (probably, that is — because Chinese characters are not unlike a spelling system that’s two thousand years out of date) , , , or . And at any rate, even if people did know the correct pronunciation, they still wouldn’t know the meaning of 苨苨. In short, 苨苨 is also a bad choice.

There’s a more common “nini,” which has different tones: níní (泥泥). This has two meanings: (1) damp (from dew), and (2) luxuriant; thick (of vegetation). The 泥 character, unlike 苨, is not uncommon. Nonetheless, the word níní (泥泥) is obscure, which would lead most people to guess at the meaning, and most of them would probably guess something like “muddy.” So this choice wouldn’t be a good one either.

The marketing managers decided to use 妮 (), which is used in nīr (妮儿/妮兒), a word for “girl.” This yields the decidedly twee “Nīnī,” which might be translated as “Girly.” (Note that the phonetic is the same as in the above: 尼.)

Here are Precious, Crystal, Joy, Welcome, and Girly:
Olympic mascots

Beijing to mix Pinyin, English on signage

This is a real disappointment: Beijing is going to drop full Pinyin on its street signs and replace it with a mixture of Mandarin (in Pinyin) and English. By this I mean that it will have not “Zhongshan Lu” but “Zhongshan Rd.” Thus, it will be following the model of Taiwan, though I doubt anybody there put it that way. Why this is necessary is beyond me. After all, foreigners get by just fine in France with “rue” on street signs instead of “street.” Beijing, however, has decided that “hutong” can stay.

This is being done in the name of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, of course.

I’m glad there’s a move to correct bad and incorrect signage, but this is the wrong way to do it. Bad move, Beijing!

Běijīng yīxiē shèwài fàndiàn, lǚyóu jǐngdiǎn, jiāotōng gànxiàn děng chù de Yīngwén biāozhì cuòwùbǎichū, yǒudeshì fānyì yǔfǎ yǒu cuò, yǒudeshì Yīngwén hé Hànyǔ Pīnyīn hùn yòng, yǒudeshì yìwén zǒuyàng, yǐzhìyú chūxiàn Zhōngguórén kànbudǒng, wàiguórén kànbumíngbai de gāngà júmiàn.

Bùguò, jìzhě jīntiān cóng quánwēi bùmén huòxī, zhè yī gāngà hùnluàn de júmiàn yǒuwàng zài 2008 nián Àoyùnhuì zhīqián zhōngjié.

Běijīng shìmín jiǎng wàiyǔ huódòng zǔwěihuì rénshì tòulù, jīngguò zhēngqiú 30 yú wèi zhuānjiā de; yìjian, 《Běijīng shì dàolù jiāotōng biāozhì Yīngwén yì fǎ yuánzé》jíjiāng chūtái, jiāng jiē, dào, lù míngchēng tǒngyī guīfàn, rú: Běijīng de “jiē” guànyǐ Yīngwén suōxiě “St”, “lù” yì wéi “Rd”, xiǎo jiē, tiáo, xiàng hé jiādào shǐyòng “Alley”. Ér tǐxiàn lǎo Běijīng wénhuà sècǎi de “hútòng” yī cí, jiāng cǎiyòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn yǔyǐ bǎoliú, yīnwèi tā yǐjing pǔbiàn bèi wàiguórén jiēshòu.

Suízhe guīfàn Yīngwén biāozhì de hūshēng yuèláiyuè gāo, jīnnián Běijīng shì jiāo guǎn bùmén yǐ náchū jǐ qiānwàn zhuānxiàng jīngfèi, yòngyú gēngxīn sān huánlù yǐnèi de jiāotōng shuāngyǔ biāozhì. Jùxī, sān huánlù yǐnèi suǒyǒu yìwén bù tǒngyī, bù guīfàn de dàolù jiāotōng shuāngyǔ biāozhì jiāng yú míngnián Liùyuè qián gēnghuàn wánbì, sān huánlù yǐwài de bù guīfàn Yīngwén jiāotōng biāozhì yě jiāng zài 2007 niándǐ quánbù huànxīn.





(Aside: Note the double zeros crammed into one graph: 二00七 and 二00八, for 2007 and 2008.)

source: Běijīng Jiāotōng Bùmén yù chìzī shù qiānwàn yuán xiāomiè cuòwù Yīngyǔ biāozhì (北京交通部门欲斥资数千万元消灭错误英语标识), Zhōngguó Xīnwénshè (China News Agency), November 15, 2005.

Beijing Olympics slogan

Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania has just released an interesting piece analyzing the somewhat odd choice of wording for the slogan for the 2008 Olympics in China:
Remarks on the slogan for the Beijing Olympics.

Mair is also editor of Sino-Platonic Papers.