Loses A Bit In Translation – Copywriting foolishness

I’m not being glib with the header to this article. English is a completely idiosyncratic language, in its written form it is simply not internally consistent and direct translations are problematic. Although the same may apply to other languages, the fact that English is the default language for many countries in the world makes it easy to find examples that cause dismissive grins and accusations (among the more Neanderthal tourists and expats) of cultural inferiority.

I’m currently resident in Singapore, a place that I grow to love more and more with each passing day. I will admit right now that my language skills can just about be stretched to a passable pronunciation of cat and hello in Mandarin, so I’m certainly in a glass Hu Tong (old Chinese house) made of glass and I’m not about to start hurling stones when it comes to linguistic challenges.


That said, I’ve often wondered why the government printers and even private organisation’s don’t just stop an English speaker (trust me, we stick out like sore thumbs) in the street and ask them “does this look right to you?” prior to printing off 5000 signs. Signs that can range from public service announcements on how to flush a public toilet, to instructions on how to use a moving sidewalk. At best it’s unsanitary and worst it’s downright dangerous.

Restaurants are no different. I’m game to try anything once, in fact I live by the simple rule that you don’t turn your nose up at anything without giving it at least a chance. However, if you’re in the service industry at least make a token effort to give me a clue about what I’m going to put in my mouth.

chinese menu

Those raising howls of outrage regarding Western cultural insensitivities can put a sock in it right now. I’m talking about restaurants in Singapore’s Gucci Belt, where at least 65% of the customers are not residents.

The majority of the mistranslations are trivial and really don’t make a noticeable difference to anyone’s life. A sign outside an industrial estate that reads “Don’t feet upon Grass” is familiar enough to grasp the meaning immediately. The same goes for warning signs like the one I saw last week reading “Don’t walk on the water” alongside an ornamental fountain. Although I must admit the urge to stand on one of the stones that is just under the surface and wave at passersby was almost (almost, I was there for a business meeting) to much to resist.

Cuteness can work wonders.

Cuteness can work wonders.

So my advice is simple, get someone to read the copy. Give them a sweetie, they’ll be only too happy to help with translation. If the Singapore government can manage to print signs in trains in multiple languages and even tailor upcoming station announcements on the train to suit the residential demographics of those who use the stop most often (this is so clever it makes me want to hug their transport minister), then surely this cannot be beyond their considerable powers.

There really is no excuse for a local municipalities to make simple signage mistakes. As for multinational businesses, these mistakes reflect poorly on your brand – make an effort.


4 thoughts on “Loses A Bit In Translation – Copywriting foolishness

  1. I laughed out loud at the last one.

    My friend is studying Mandarin and it looks like a very difficult language to learn. Also, I have a friend who is from Hong Kong and usually speaks Cantonese. The way he sometimes phrases things is very interesting indeed.

    My favourite phrase of his is:

    “I want to slap on his face!”

    He repeats it a lot, especially about our lecturers.

    • Thanks for the ‘like’ misskzebra. Anything I can do to reciprocate, give me a shout. I’ll check out your blog of course.

      If you have anything you’d like me to write about as far as marketing, copywriting or anything related (or even unrelated) let me know. I’m happy to do the research and put something in the blog.

    • Thanks for the reblog Paul, much appreciated. If there are any more subjects you’d like me to write about I’d be only too happy to oblige. I’ll be checking out your blog as well.

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