Translation Challenges: Roof Repair

I recently spotted this sign on the stairs leading to the roof of the AllSet Learning office building:


Here’s the Chinese text:

> 屋顶检修中暂停使用谢谢

Literally, that’s:

> rooftop / examine and repair / in the middle of,
temporarily stop / use; usage,
thank you!

The translation offered:

> The roof is during maintenance. Stop using temporarily. Thank you!

The translation, while not great, is understandable. What stood out to me, though, were two issues frequently encountered in Chinese signs which can give translators a hard time:

1. Use of after a verb
2. Signage etiquette

First let’s look at the first part: 屋顶检修中. The translator was on the right track with “during” for , and in adding “to be” into the English (its absence in Chinese is key to the difficulty of the translation), and also in converting the Chinese 检修 verb to a noun form for the English. But it still came out weird, because the translation demands a certain amount of linguistic flexibility with the concept behind . It’s hard to come up with a stock translation for this that’s going to work in most cases. “During,” “in the middle of,” “in progress,” “underway,” “undergoing,” “in the midst of,” “currently” are all possibilities, but they’re certainly not easy for a non-native speaker to choose between, and not all are prepositions or prepositional phrases, either.

For the second part, 暂停使用, although the English is correct, it doesn’t contain the necessary degree of politeness we expect and demand from our signage in the English-speaking world. Chinese signs, while formal, just don’t feel as polite, and everyone is cool with that.

I have to give the translator props for converting the Chinese commas into periods in English, though. The Chinese “legal run-on” sentence being translated into an (unacceptable) run-on sentence in English is one of the most common mistakes made by beginner Chinese-English translators.

Anyway, a better translation would be something like:

> The rooftop is currently undergoing repairs. Please do not use it at this time. Thank you!

Obviously, that can be polished more.

It’s easy to laugh at bad Engrish, but in this case there’s nothing funny, and difficulties translating from Chinese to English (that go beyond simple word choice) can be indicative of difficulties that learners of Chinese will face with Chinese.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. theAdmiral Says: March 4, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Great post John. But I have a question about the original signage text in Chinese. In an industrial factory setting, we would commonly see a sign that read something like this:
    There would be an English translation of “CAUTION: This area of the facility is under repair”, sorry no pics handy.
    Any thoughts on why there would be that phrase versus this one?

    • That’s the kind of question that’s best to ask native speakers. Although the intent is similar, there are a lot of differences in word choice used, so you could examine all the differences in vocabulary. WRT level of formality, they’re basically equivalent.

  2. 1) A terrible waste of talent, namely a building with “John Pasden” as a resident, posting a sign like such.

    2) Translation is like cooking, same ingredients different result. The difference, the cook.

    Here’s another option.

    1) Roof terrace maintenance in progress, temporarily do not use, thank you!
    2) Due to the roof terrace undergoing maintenance, please temporarily refrain from using it. Thank you!
    3) The roof terrace is undergoing maintenance, at this time please do not use it. Thank you!

  3. Please stay off the roof as it is temporarily closed for maintenance. Thank you!

  4. This is my favorite mistranslation. I took this photo around 2005, at the corner of Xiang Yang Lu and Huai Hai Lu. It was used at the Huaihai facing outdoor public space of a new, sophisticated high rise, Singaporean built (I believe), called the K-Wah (I think that was the name).

    This was when there was the Xiang Yang Market, home of fake and Shan zhai goods. Lots of laowai tourists. I can imagine this scenario (I’m from Indiana):

    Earl (from Kansas): “Marge, look at the sign, let’s take a look. We ain’t in Kansas anymore…”

    Let me know if the photo isn’t available, I can send it to you.

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