Pandas Need Good English Too, Right?

China has a bit of a bad rep as being a hotbed for infectious diseases- SARS and all. But, there is one epidemic that runs rampant in the Middle Kingdom  that is much more endearing and less fatal than bird flu- the overwhelming and constantly spreading Chinglish plague. (The loogies on every street corner and stairway are one of the least endearing and yet overwhelming and constantly spreading things in Chengdu, but that is a disgusting blog post I’ll save for another day.) Chengdu, in its attempt to modernize and become a more metropolitan city, has thrown up English all over the place. Sometimes it is well-done and rather helpful, like on the metro system, and sometime it is baffling and downright confusing, like on many menus across town.  (What exactly are Mexican tomatoes and how are they different from other tomatoes?)

The Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base is a magnet for most all foreigners passing through Chengdu. It is on everyone’s must-see list, and rightly so. It doesn’t matter if it is a six-year old fascinated with wildlife or a brigadier general, the fuzzy, roly-poly toddlers bring a smile to everyone’s face.

If I were to make a Venn Diagram of Chinglish and the panda center, with one circle blue and one circle red, the diagram would just be a giant purple dot. (I can’t tell you how much I loved making Venn Diagrams as an English teacher!) Every sign in the park is filled with little ditties that, while understandable, are a bit quirky. But, I loved their quirkiness. Announcing, “ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” is an awesome way to (attempt) to get people to lower their voices. (It doesn’t work, as China is the land of rules/regulations being meant for everyone but “me.”)

But, that giant purple dot is coming to an end and I am sorry to say I had a hand in its demise. You see, a few months ago, the Panda Research Base put out a call for editors for their bi-monthly English newsletter.  They reached out to the US Consulate community, looking to pay someone to do the work, but since the US and China do not have a bilateral work agreement (meaning no working on the local economy while here on a diplomatic passport, which makes working for the spouses of officers a challenge), we offered to put it out to our community as a volunteer opportunity. When  the email came up on my computer, the English teacher in me got really excited, but after taking a deep breath (okay, not too deep, as it was another  “hazardous” day on the air quality monitor), I rolled my chair back up to my desk and got to work putting together an announcement for our adult family members.

Since I am lucky enough to be employed full-time by the consulate, I didn’t want to take this awesome opportunity away from one of our family members who wasn’t currently working, so I sent out a notice and sat back and waited. After a week of the panda base not getting any bites, I resent the notice, but again, no one expressed interest.

Two weeks seemed like a fair amount of time to let other s jump on this great opportunity, so when that amount of time had passed and no one from our group had contacted the base, I reached out and offered my services. (Granted, there was an application process that included a resume and three writing samples, but since I have a fresh resume from applying for my current position with the consulate and I write on a regular basis, it was easy to throw together the needed paperwork.) Then newsletter creator got back to me within a few days, saying she would love to work together on the upcoming issues.

After waiting a few weeks, I got my first editing job from the Chengdu Panda Research Base, but it wasn’t what I expected. Rather than being articles for an upcoming newsletter, it was photographs of *every* sign in the park that had English on them (including pictures of not one, but all, of the “no smoking” signs). My contact at the base asked me to go through each one and correct the English, as they planned to reprint the signs in the near future.

There were some of the signs that I was happy to fix, like the ones with letters transposed, but a little piece of my soul died as I corrected some of the more heartwarming signs about the pandas personalities and backgrounds. As an English teacher, I know how important it is for communication to be clear and concise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love a little quirkiness as much as the next gal.

It took me several hours to go through all of the signs and make the corrections. Some of the more scientific ones took an extra long time, as I had to decipher what the original meaning was and then put that into a daily English that visitors could readily understand, which isn’t always easy when the starting point seems to be a terrible translation from Google.

In the end, I know that good signage will make the research center a more reputable facility, and I am thrilled to be able to volunteer with them in this way. But, to assuage the heartache of ridding the city of some of my favorite English, I did quietly leave the ““ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” sign intact.

Just a few of the signs that needed help

Just a few of the signs that needed help

2 thoughts on “Pandas Need Good English Too, Right?

    • The oddness of some of them does make me smile, but I can also understand the base’s desire to be professional, which is why I was happy to help. But, it was tough to change some of the cuter translations.

      On 12/4/12, In Search of the End of the Sidewalk

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