I recently spotted this sign on the stairs leading to the roof of the AllSet Learning office building:
Here’s the Chinese text:
> rooftop / examine and repair / in the middle of,
temporarily stop / use; usage,
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 中 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 中, 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 中. It’s hard to come up with a stock translation for this 中 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.