FAIL: Literalism, lost in translation, literally

Posted on Sun 13 May 2012 @ 9.30pm UTC

HERE ARE TWO EXAMPLES from a few hours ago that show the typical bungled literalism that is starting to overpower translation work here in this part of the world.

Translators! Pay attention! Class is in session!

* * *

Exhibit A

This is an original Chinese-language book and not a translated work. It is one of those in roughly the same mould as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

That English-language title is a schoolboyish attempt at translating Chinese, whatever the bog standard we measured by.

Had the translator learnt his trade properly in the first place, the proper rendering should have been (choose the one you like best):—

You Too Can Be Rich (1st choice)

You Too Can Be One of The Rich

You Too Can Be A Rich Person

You Too Can Be Moneyed

Instead, we have that abortion of an English translation.

Reverse-engineering from the English title would in fact get us this farcical Chinese title:—


[Mandarin: Nǐ yě yǒu kě néng chéng wéi fù yǒu de rén]

[Cantonese: Nei yah yau hor nung s(h)ing wai fu yau dik yan]

That’s the reverse engineering from my translator, who has 30-odd years of general and legal translating experience. This is a translator whom I regularly contract to work on IPOs (public stock flotations) worth literally tens or hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. Those IPO prospectuses are effectively legal documents and their markups have to clear round after round of government and legal regulatory oversight before publication date.

Here’s the explanation straight from the horse’s mouth:


May’ and also ‘might’ are only translatable as 可能 [kě néng : Cantonese hor nung], whilst 可以 [kě yǐ : hor yee] can only be ‘can.’ Any basic-level translator should know that difference.

Become’ is 成為 [chéng wéi : shing wai] generally, but in this construction ‘be’ should be used instead.

For ‘rich person,’ we have a choice of 富翁 [fù wēng : fu yung] or the slightly less common 富人 [fù rén : fu yan] or the slightly more Cantonese-sounding colloquialism 有錢人 [yǒu qián rén : yau tseen yan] — so those could be a matter of stylistics more than anything else.

Unless and until I’ve read the book, I would probably go for the more upscale 富翁 [fù wēng] unless that conflicts with the basic premise of the contents.”

A rider from my translator:

“Your English version is actually not only the correct translation of the Chinese title but one more in keeping with the flavour of this kind of book.”

 * * *

 Exhibit B


This second exhibit farkin’ defies belief. Even Google Translate does a better job than that.

Indeed, picking random words from a dictionary with missing pages probably will get us a better deal than that cretinised moronicity.

(My translator was dumbstricken at the sight of the second book title.)

For the curious, the Chinese title is pronounced:—


[Mandarin: Yǒu qián rén gēn nǐ zuò de bù yī yàng]

[Cantonese: Yau tseen yan gunn nei joh dik but yat yeung]

The Chinese title is stilted. It’s bastardised Chinese. It’s not Mandarin. It’s not Cantonese. It’s almost somewhere in between and neither. It sounds nearly like Singaporean Chinese but isn’t. It’s farkin’ nothing Chinese. Yet each Chinese word or phrase group is well known enough so we can tell that this book is about how the rich do things differently from ‘you’ (presumably those who aren’t loaded)

Let’s not bother with proper Chinese phraseology right now, especially for a book about the haves vs. have-nots in the mould of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

A literal translation of the Chinese title into English would be:—

  • 有錢人 [yǒu qián rén] = rich people, the rich (bungled as ‘Richman’ in the title)
  • 跟你 [gēn nǐ]= with you, follow you
  • [zuò] = to do, to carry out, to bring about
  • [de] = of
  • 不一樣 [bù yī yàng] = not the same; different; dissimilar

 In effect, even an overly literal translation should give us this English title:

The Rich And You Do Different

Even you have to admit THAT is still a helluva lot better than the cretinism we see in the picture. Indeed, that is perfect enough already, and therefore more sellable. And do different is correct, grammatical English as well.

For the curious, the proper Chinese phraseology (Mandarin or anything else) would be:—

豐富的人和你做的不同 [Fēng fù de rén hé nǐ zuò de bù tóng]

有錢人和你做的不同 [Yǒu qián rén hé nǐ zuò de bù tóng]

If these people (authors and translators) can’t be arsed to write proper Chinese, then they don’t deserve an explanation why the above are proper Chinese. So there.

And when they can’t even bother to translate something into some semblance of reasonably understandable Standard English, they truly deserve to have their faces raeped.

* * *


If you’re paying enough attention to what’s happening around you, you too should have a couple of questions on your mind right now:—

Why an English title for a book entirely in Chinese when it’s not a translated work?

Beats me. On first impressions of their names, the authors of those two books appear to be Chinese people. Maybe the publisher wanted to slot in an English-language title so as to make the books seem like translated works. This is a ‘hack’ often employed by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese publishers to crank up the ‘sellability’ of their locally written works. Who knows? Who cares.

So why had those book titles been translated that way?

My translator had this to say for Exhibit A:—

“It’s like you said all the time. Most of us [in this part of the world] start learning English since Day One from a writing angle, never from a speaking one. Add to that problem is the fact that we’ve always started off learning the passive voice before anything else because of — like you said — some imaginary high worth in turning out hard-to-read sentences.

“And then there’s that phenomenon of 高檔化 [gāo dàng huà / Cantonese: goh dong fah] or ‘gentrification’ as you called it so well. Our teachers brainwash us into avoiding short, strong and direct words such as ‘can’ or ‘do’ and punish us for not using long, difficult, ambiguous words like ‘may.’

“I spent 10 years studying English in school, and then spent maybe another 10 years unlearning the stuff from school before I could actually work in translation. The time wastage of that is just indescribable.

“Because we hardly ever learn English from speaking, we never learnt how to use words like ‘could,’ ‘should’ or ‘would and many others — exactly the kind of words that English speakers use in real life that we have to deal with when we come out and start to work in the real world.

“So we end up having these si fut gwai [arseholes] translating shit Chinese into even shittier English, and thinking it’s the best thing in the world.”

What about that tornado-in-your-anus disaster in Exhibit B?

My translator again:—

“Well, it can’t be from Google Translate, that’s for sure. Google’s bog standard in Chinese-English and English-Chinese translation is still 10 times better than this. Clearly, Exhibit B is a cutesy takeoff on another book called ‘The Rich Man Eats And You Is Dissimilar’ (有錢人吃的和你不一樣), which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is quite bad and ‘brain-damaged,’ as you guys from the UK tend to say.

“The whole thing just looks like [the publishers] have no functioning editors or translators.”

Are the titles more Mandarin or more Cantonese or more what?

My translator:—

“No, not Mandarin, not Cantonese. If they were Cantonese, no wonder Beijing wants to shut Cantonese down. We just don’t need this kind of embarrassment on top of everything else.”

Straight up, what’s the English like?

My translator:—

“Why ask me? Your English is better than all the native English speakers I know. My own English is terrible, and even I could do a lot better than that. They’re a mess. I’m embarrassed that there are actually people of such low standards and abilities in my own field who got paid for inventing this stuff.

“We can’t even excuse the English titles as a free translation. Come on, free translation isn’t this bad.

“[…] I would also say these [translators] are also the kind of people who read nothing other than their translation studies books and probably don’t spend any significant time to even watch the English TV channels or go to see English-language movies. So they look like they’re completely clueless about English — and probably also translation work.”

Thank you, and that’s why I contract you for Real Work That Pays The Bills.

And thank you for liking my ‘tornado-in-your-anus’ description too.

© Learn English or Starve, 2012. Images by the author.

Posted in: Colour Section