Domestic Affairs

Improving tourist sites for English-speakers

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-10-13 13:03
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My wife and I were part of the estimated 254 million tourists that visited scenic locales throughout China during the week-long 2010 National Day Holiday.

We vacationed in Xinjiang Autonomous Region and spent time visiting mosques, shopping, riding camels in the desert, hiking in a mountainous region, sleeping outdoors in tents and yurts, and traveling by car.

We encountered lots of Chinese who were not Han and landed in spots where little or no Chinese was spoken. The people were welcoming and friendly.

While we loved our journey, ate too much, and discovered many new things about this country, one thing was not new- the apparent indifference to providing intelligible English translations at tourist sites.

We had an English-speaking guide who accompanied us and could generally answer our questions, but it was often impossible to understand the written descriptions about the sites.

Any English-speaking Westerner visiting China for any length of time will likely have some stories about those quaint and amusing "Chinglishisms" they saw.

Chinglish signs though, while confusing, are normally comprehensible. Similarly, whacky advice from books and pamphlets, like the Kashgar tour book advising people not to say "Salam" to someone who "is taking a shower, in the toilet, or other dirty places", is harmless.

But what is infuriating are the site signs, which are intended to inform and more often leave one feeling as if one has just encountered a schizophrenic. The signs typically introduce a concept, trip up over some grammar, employ several obscure words, meander around for awhile, throw in seven or eight ideas, and conclude with a flourish. Someone reading the sign is left to ask, "Huh?".

The feeling I get when I try to make sense of the signs is similar to what happened when I was first communicating with my ayi (maid). She spoke almost no English and I spoke almost no Chinese.. She would use an oral translating device and usually we would get no closer to understanding one another than when we used hand signals and stumbled through the few words we did know in each other's language.

It is quite possible that many tourist sites in China simply do not attract enough people who speak only English to make it worthwhile to pay attention to the quality of English translations at those sites. If that is so, those attractions should consider getting rid of the English signs altogether, as no information is better than a jangle of time-consuming nonsense.

If, however, a region is interested in showcasing its many splendors and hopes to attract largely English-speaking foreigners, then that site needs to use fully bilingual scholars to oversee the development of English-language signs. Before informational placards are placed at historic sites, those placards should be proofread by native English speakers.

The quality of a site's translations really does say something to a visitor about the quality of the site.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.