The (in)famous four Chinese tones follow me everywhere in Beijing: down the street, while I sip my coffee, and rings in my ear as I stand elbow-to-elbow in the subway during rush hour.
I came to China with no knowledge of Chinese outside of ni hao and it’s unlikely I’ll leave as a Chinese language master. I never considered becoming knowledgable in another type of language: Chinglish.
Chinglish is pretty self-explanatory. It’s sort of like the more commonly known Spanglish (also the name of a sub-par Adam Sandler movie, but I digress), a strange morphing of English and another language. The Chinglish I work with takes English but formats it in a wonky, and often lengthy, way typical of Chinese speech (or so I’m told).
My job at China Daily is to copy edit the work I receive. I knew I’d have to fix tenses, some words and grammar. Yet on top of my copy editing duties I’ve also become a Chinglish translator. Most of the copy I receive was originally written in Chinese. A well-versed Chinese native with English skills then translates that into English. I’m the next station of the textual assembly line where I “translate” the sometimes very raw English translation into something that actually makes sense.
The easiest example I can give is using Spanish (of which I have a more comfortable knowledge of than Chinese). The common “no me gusta” literally, word for word, means “no I like.” Those with a basic knowledge of how Spanish is constructed know the sentence structure is different than English and it actually means “I do not like.”
I encounter this everyday and although I do not know much Chinese I’m becoming very familiar with how the Chinese language is structured. The translations aren’t incorrect (well, some of the grammar/tenses are) but it’s often lengthy and I have to read between the lines to condense it into a more concise structure English readers are more comfortable reading.
For instance, dates always come first and are very precise: “An event happened on June 2, 2014 in the morning in New York.” “Company B was founded in 1987 and is a large globally-recognized cosmetics company.”
I had dinner once with a group of people and ended up conversing with an Alabama native teaching English in Beijing. She confirmed she too would see similar subject organization. She said in the Chinese language date and time is often the first bit of information in a sentence and is important.
I’ve also stumbled upon “firstly”, “secondly,” “thirdly” when talking about a series of subjects or the process of how something is done or has evolved. This can certainly be used in English but not as often. It’s sort of rigid and there’s other ways to structure a sentence to make it flow better. Other friends I’ve talked with say when they are taught English, signifying order is something that is stressed in the classroom.
Chinese translators also like to use conjugative adverbs: “therefore”, “thus”, “hence”, “finally”, “likewise”.
A sentence might say, “This ancient tribe often worked throughout the night to make their special robes for the lunar festival. Therefore, people come to visit the fall festival and munch on many food delicacies and listen to traditional drummers.”
I can’t criticize these translators too harshly. I ,after all, am not fluent in a second language at all and I’m sure my professor cringed when reading my papers in Spanish class. Yet it’s interesting to observe how written English is taught and how some of those mannerisms developed in a classroom setting aren’t necessarily true to the English style of writing.
Newest skill on my CV: Chinglish