Editorial: Mind your language

If you can read all of this issue's cover you're probably one of our readers in Hong Kong, China, or otherwise brought up as a Mandarin speaker.

It has to be said, it's extremely unlikely that you will have learnt Mandarin as a second language after English. Why? Because it's simply so rare for Westerners – and the British in particular – to bother.

Many British people just don't see why they should speak anything other than English, regardless of what country they're in or what nationality they find themselves dealing with. Instead of the Mandarin, they would perhaps just repeat the English, but in much larger letters – the typographical equivalent of the Englishman abroad who, instead of learning any of the local language, just 'speaks louder and more slow-ly, see?'

In our cover feature, Wilf Altman asks how the West can do business with China if its companies can't communicate with Chinese customers in their own language. Westerners are complacent about English, he says, to the point that we're smug when we hear funny stories about mistranslations into English.

Here are a few examples from hotels – just to illustrate the point of course. There's the sign in the Bucharest lobby: "The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable". Or in a Paris hotel lift: "Please leave your values at the front desk". These stories may just be urban myths. Yet whatever the case, they raise a smile because we can see what they were trying to say and how it all went wrong.

However, let's not get too comfortable here. There are just as many urban myths about Western companies' marketing falling foul of translation difficulties or unexpected cultural differences. Even an organisation as large as General Motors is said to have launched the Chevy Nova in South America, only then to find that 'no va' translates as 'won't go'.

The red faces around the GM boardroom table will have been as nothing compared to the embarrassment at Ford when they realised that 'Pinto' had a somewhat ruder meaning in Brazilian slang. The Taiwanese translation of 'Come alive with the Pepsi generation' came out as 'Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead', and, in the interests of even-handedness in the soft drinks market, the name of rivals Coca-Cola was first rendered in China as 'Ke-kou-ke-la' – 'bite the wax tadpole' or 'female horse stuffed with wax'.

At the Chinese New Year celebrations in London, a Met policeman handed my kids bright red balloons. These had various Chinese characters on them, which were also helpfully translated into the Roman alphabet: 'Enjoy the Year of the Rat'. Now, you know this is a genuine tradition because no marketing department in the world would invent a year of the rat. But those Chinese characters could have said anything for all we, or the policeman who gave it to us, knew.

Well, I confidently proclaim that there can be no such fears for this issue's cover, which was translated by the Chinese Embassy for us. Nothing to worry about there. We hope...

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