Declining Chinese standards reveal cracks in Singapore’s bilingual policy

By Lee Kai Shun

A poorly translated notice that seeks to inform the business’ customers of their change in location and the call for continuous support. The translation has violated the syntax, grammar and structure of the English language, which may be a reflection that the translation may have been done word by word by a computer software.
A poorly translated notice that seeks to inform the business’ customers of their change in location and the call for continuous support. The translation has violated the syntax, grammar and structure of the English language, which may be a reflection that the translation may have been done word by word by a computer software.

SINGAPORE, May 1 (Campus Eye) – Singapore, which has long boasted about its citizens’ dexterity with the Chinese language, has been left cringing of late after overseas media published unflattering reports poking fun at a series of mistranslations in official documents and websites.

In Hong Kong and Taiwan, various media outlets have pointed to blunders in translation in popular tourist spots and official websites. On the website of Singapore’s National Heritage Board’s, the popular “Bras Basah” district was translated into Xiong Zao Basah (meaning Brassiere Basah), while “admission to museum” was translated Ru Xue (meaning admission to school).

“Such mistakes are unforgivable and we can laugh at them within ourselves. But now that it is covered in foreign media, it is no longer that funny to us already right?” said Lee Cher Leng, an associate professor from the Chinese Studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Mistranslations have not been confined to commercial activities. In 2013, the Marine Parade Town Council issued a Chinese public notice on pet hygiene with the title “Zuo Yi Ge Ren De Wu Zhu Ren”, meaning “be an appointed owner”, when the actual title should have been “Zuo Yi Ge Zhe Ren De Wu Zhu Ren”, which would have meant “be a responsible owner”.

In its subsequent text, several questions marks were used to replace Chinese terms that the translator was unsure of.

“The appearance of four question marks and various missing Chinese characters made this look like a word filling game which was utterly confusing for readers,” member of parliament Baey Yam Keng said in an interview with local newspaper MyPaper in September 2013.

Mistranslations is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it has its roots as early as 2002 when Singapore Tourism Board’s marketing brochure translated Hungry Ghost Festival as Xiong Ya Li Gui Jie (Hungary Ghost Festival).

GROWING UP WITH ENGLISH

Singapore’s bilingual education policy is almost 50 years old. The majority of its ethnic Chinese citizens are able to comprehend and converse in Mandarin in varying degrees of fluency. But most are more accustomed to English publications and media as they are educated in English medium schools.

According to a 2009 Ministry of Education report, 60 percent of ethnic Chinese children who enter primary school were from an English-speaking background.

“It should no longer come as a surprise that English is the lingua franca for most Singaporeans. In fact, it is safe to assume that English has become the mother tongue for most,” said associate professor Lionel Wee from the English department at NUS in his lecture to about 300 students in late 2013.

It is therefore unsurprising that Singaporeans who are effectively bilingual are a small minority and hence, the task of translation is outsourced to foreign countries and software.

The issue with such outsourcing is that it does not take into account context and local terminologies. Such unfamiliarity leads to erroneous translations.

MOVING ON WITH CHINESE

Linguists like Lee and Wee agree that the lack of usage or practice leads to a weak command of any language.

“In school, all subjects except the student’s vernacular language are taught in English. To improve the standard of their mother tongue… it will be preferable if certain subjects could be taught in the student’s mother tongue as well so as to give them more exposure,” said Lee, when asked what could be done to improve the standard of Chinese.

The government has tweaked its language policies several times over the past two decades because it wants Singaporeans to benefit from the rapid growth of China’s economy.

“Companies come to us (Singapore) because we offer a hybridization of both East and West, something that others cannot offer,” said Lim Sau Hoong, CEO and Director of 10AM Communications.

Lim, a Singaporean, was also the visual advisor for the Beijing Olympics and she strongly believes that it was her bilingual background that gave her the cutting edge to be hired in such a large scale Chinese event.

“People believe in us [Singaporeans] as we can present something that pleases both yin and yang. If we lose either, we will lose many opportunities, especially those in booming China.”

 

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