What does bladder disease have to do with cycling? Riders in South Wales wondered when, as the South Wales Echo reported, a road sign was translated from “Cyclists Dismount” in English to mean roughly “Bladder Disease Has Returned” in Welsh.
For public safety reasons, communities with sizable bilingual populations or heavy flows of foreign travelers often translate traffic signs into various languages. Many of these signs display mistranslations that range from the unintelligible to the hilarious, and other mistranslated signs are more dangerous than providing no translation at all.
The notice, “To take notice of the safe, the slippery are very crafty,” has puzzled English speakers in China instead of achieving its simple goal to caution people about slippery pavement. An exit sign in China previously directed drivers to an Ethnic Minorities Park titled, “Racist Park.” Despite these bloopers, Beijing should be commended for correcting many of its confusing signs as the city prepared to host the 2008 Olympics. Shanghai made similar efforts in preparation for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.
Naturally, the world has yet to root out all bad sign translations in every locale. Some of these blunders are confusing even when they avoid poor grammar and misspellings. An often cited detour sign in Japan once read “Stop: Drive sideways” while a sign in Cape Town, South Africa, perplexed Xhosa-speaking pedestrians with the phrase “No walking,” when it was supposed to read “No hawking.”
One of my favorite examples of the dangers of not ensuring quality when translating public signs involves a Welsh traffic sign. According to news published and televised by the BBC a couple years ago, a local authority in Wales sent an email to a language service provider requesting English-to-Welsh translation of the sign in question. The English text read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” The public authority promptly received an emailed response in Welsh and, presumably anxious to complete his or her task, duly ordered the printed sign. After the sign was posted, Welsh speakers pointed out that the supposed Welsh “translation” actually said, “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”
Unfortunately, sign mistranslations are not always merely humorous or confusing – some perilously tell drivers and pedestrians to do the opposite of what they should. One misguided Chinese-to-English translation implores, “Do drunken driving,” and a sign in Wales told English-speaking pedestrians to “look right” while telling Welsh speaking pedestrians to “look left.”
Countries can avoid much of this confusion – and even the need to translate many guideposts – by using internationally recognized symbols. For example, dozens of countries in Europe refer to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals to create signs with consistently and widely understood symbols and colors. Businesspeople and tourists visiting Europe would do well to learn some of these symbols before taking the wheel.
While helpful, however, international symbols are not always sufficient to fully and professionally communicate local traffic rules and instructions. For nearly a century, English-speaking visitors to Japan have chuckled at clumsy English translations of Japanese traffic rules – according to various newspapers in the 1920s, passengers on the ocean liner China were greeted in Japan with driving instructions to “tootle” car horns at pedestrians and avoid lurking “skid devils.” The complete instructions contain many other little gems that read as follows (as found in the St. Petersburg Times, April 5, 1921):
At the rise of the hand of the policeman stop rapidly. Do not pass him or otherwise disrespect him.
When a passenger of foot hove in sight tootle the horn trumpet him melodiously at first. If he still obstacles your passage tootle with vigor and express by word of mouth “Hi! Hi!”
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