The Ville of Urban Eatery

A few weeks ago, I shared some pictures of signs I had seen in Shanghai that were good examples of odd translations into English. While the signs in Thailand are generally more accurately translated, I did just recently run into one that made me pause.

An office building across from Central Chidlom department store is being renovated and rebranded as The Mercury Ville @ Chidlom. The tag line: “The Ville of Urban Eatery. The Venue of Urban Dining Flagship in Town.” I have no idea what that means.

Thinglish: Please Abstain Us

Living in Thailand, where English is taught in the schools but not very well, one encounters all sorts of examples of Thai English that provoke confusion, bewilderment, and hilarity. (Of course, being perfectly fair, my creative uses of the Thai language send normally polite and reserved locals into paroxysms of laughter.) The other day at a local mall, I stopped to admire the works of young artists who had created entries for an exhibit themed around environmental awareness.

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A painter offers this moose imploring viewers to “please abstain us”. The idea, according to the plaque on the base, was to not eat endangered species of animals. A thoughtful idea and a graphically arresting one, even if a bit off in its use of English. 

 

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography

“For me, it’s a cause of some upset
that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language.”

– Stephen Fry

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English writer, actor, journalist, and director Stephen Fry has long been a favorite of mine.  He’s tremendously smart and enormously witty, two things I aspire to be.  Last year he released on his blog a podcast about language, its use, and the dour pedants who resist the continued evolution of language.

The podcast is well worth a listen, but even more enjoyable is a six-minute animated video put together by one Matt Rogers.  He takes portions of Fry’s podcast and uses kinetic typography to set it in motion, giving the words the beauty of dancers.  Here it is for your enjoyment.

 

Misuse and Abuse of Language

Even as a native speaker, I recognize what a messed-up langauge English is.  Because of that, I have a lot of sympathy for non-native speakers.  When I really need a laugh, I’ll stop by Engrish.com to see some of the ways in which the English language has suffered at the hands of non-native speakers, particularly in Japan and China.  One lesson I draw from all this, though, is that one shouldn’t use a language if you don’t really know what you’re doing.

This gets me to wondering about people who cross the line from innocent mistakes – of course a non-native might easily write “corn poops” instead of “corn pops” on a breakfast cereal sign – to intentionally disregarding a language, using it more for decorative purposes rather than for communicating.  I’ve written before about the dangers of getting a tattoo in a language you don’t understand.  What about those who choose to use language for interior design but obviously don’t understand it?

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Case in point, the “pan Asian” restaurant RockSugar at the Century City mall in Los Angeles.  Owned by the Cheesecake Factory chain, the entry to the restaurant is decked out with Buddha statues (which, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter, are objects of veneration, not decorative items to place by the front door) and “exotic” looking Thai script.  The Thai phrases appear in odd places, vertically along some of the outside walls (note that Thai isn’t written vertically), in random phrases on their website, and in the entry vestibule, pictured below.

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Wow, looks exotic, huh?  Boy, I bet I’m about to get some authentic Oriental food here… maybe I can get a slice of green tea cheesecake afterwards.

Rock Sugar Translation

Putting aside the fact that these are nonsense phrases, much like some of the entries at Engrish.com, they are also written in some absurd out-of-order combination of font sizes that makes it harder to follow in Thai than it is in the English translation, above.

I understand the fascination with other cultures and who wouldn’t want to open a restaurant featuring a mish-mash of Asian cuisines?  But perhaps in doing so we could use a little bit of cultural awareness and sensitivity in the process of designing the interior of the restaurant?  Is that too much to ask?

 

Then Why the *#%! Did You Decide to Learn It?

Thursday afternoon I was chatting with Khruu Kitiya (“Khruu” = “Teacher”), my Thai tutor, and she told me about her other job.  While she has a few private students like me, her primary job is working at one of the ubiquitous Thai language schools here in Krungthep.  As Khruu Kitiya explained, her Level 3 class, the one in which writing and reading Thai is first introduced, has been giving her trouble.  Of the six students from six different countries, one of them is proving to be difficult. 

Ugly American It seems that there is always at least one in every class.  He (almost always, it is a “he”) asks too many questions, leads the conversation down rabbit trails, and is always demanding the teacher justify why the language is the way it is.  As near as I can tell from my own experience, it is the analytical types (yes, you engineers!) who seem to have the most trouble just letting go and accepting that there are some things in this world – and particularly some things in languages – that just don’t have a rational explanation.  They are called the exceptions to the rules

In this case, Khruu Kitiya’s one student spent a half-hour debating with her during class about why the Thai government should just march right in (between coups) and fix all the problems with the language.  Those unarticulated consonants?  Get rid of them!  Those confusing spellings that come from Sanskrit?  Change them!  He wanted to know why, if the language had these “problems,” someone didn’t fix them.

Khruu Kitiya, with extraordinary patience that is characteristic of the Thais, tried to explain that even if the government wanted to change the language, they couldn’t.  The language is a deep part of the Thai people’s culture and it is the way it is because it is a reflection of the many cultures and people who eventually became a part of the country.  (In fact, as a historical side note, the Thai government has tried to change the language before under the military leader Field Marshal Pibulsonggram during the World War II era.  The changes did not stick.)

The student used the analogy of an old sofa.  If you had an old sofa in your house and you knew it no longer was useful, why wouldn’t you just through it out?  Needless to say, Khruu Kitiya was not won over by that analogy.

What I don’t understand is why someone would come to a country and choose to study the language if he or she was not prepared to accept it on its own terms.  Why would someone be so arrogant as to think that his or her perspective on what was “right” or “wrong” for another language was superior to the way the language already is?

While Khruu Kitiya wanted to remain non-confrontational, I encouraged her to ask the student next time – in a friendly and non-confrontational way – whether in his country (Italy) it is considered polite to go into someone else’s house and criticize their furniture.  She could explain that in Thailand, one doesn’t go into a house as a guest and then suggest the sofa be thrown out.

Anyhow, this is the type of thing that keeps me from hanging out with many expats.  Whether it be the language or a dozen other things, there are many people who seem to lack any understanding of how to appreciate the culture they have chosen to live in.

 

Really Lost in Translation

A good 70% of the residents of our condo are Thai.  Nonetheless, the company that serves as our building management, a division of Plus Property, usually does an effective job trying to accommodate those of us who are not native Thai speakers.  Within a day or two after notices are posted, an English translation will be taped up alongside.

Tawn and I are still scratching our heads about this one.  Unfortunately, the Thai version didn’t make much sense, either.

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Tattoos in Native Tongues

You’ve seen them, those tattoos that people sport featuring words or characters in a language other than one in which they are fluent.  You may even have one yourself.  I’m telling you, though, that’s a mighty dangerous path to tread.

Leaving aside questions of cultural appropriation and exoticization (and there is some potentially rich academic soil to till about this issue), what I’m talking about is the plain and simple, practical reason to not get a tattoo in a language you don’t read: It may end up being incorrect.

Now, I know someone to whom this happened.  Because of that, I realize that bright, intelligent, thoughtful people can make that mistake.  And because I know that readers of this blog are equally bright, intelligent and thoughtful, I’m providing you this warning: Don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t read!

Don’t believe me?  Let’s consider this object lesson:

Thai Tattoo

My friend Jack is a Thai who lives in the American midwest.  Note that this is not a picture of Jack’s back.  While he was on holiday, Jack spotted a young caucasian man with this tattoo and curious, asked him about it.

It seems that the young man, a native of Springfield, Missouri, was a basketball player and he went on some program to Thailand where he played ball with Thai high schoolers and spoke to them about basketball and life in the U.S.  Returning to Springfield, the young man decided to get a tattoo, using Thai script.

So far, so good.  Glad to hear that Thailand made such a positive impression on him that he wanted to immortalize the Thai language on his skin.

The problem is two-fold:

First, there are two spelling mistakes.  The words ไม and อยาง are both missing accent marks  They should be ไม่ and อย่าง.  As a tonal language, the use (or absence) of a tone mark can often alter the meaning of Thai words.  In this case, the misspelling does not change the meaning but simply makes the words incorrectly spelled.

Second, the phrase doesn’t say what he intends it to say.  Based on the cross, I guessed he wanted the Christian phrase, “You will never walk alone.”  When I asked Jack, he confirmed that this was the young man’s understanding of how the tattoo read.  Jack, being Thai and characteristically too polite to embarrass someone, didn’t tell him that the tattoo says something else entirely.

The phrase reads khun ja mai duhn piang yang diaw, which means “You will never just only walk” – in other words, you will walk while doing something else at the same time, perhaps chewing gum or humming or whistling.

No word on how the young man managed to get this incorrect translation.  My guess is he thought it would be cool and asked someone he met in Thailand – someone who doesn’t understand English well enough – to write the phrase in Thai.  Given what I’ve learned while living here, I can see how “alone” could have easily been misunderstood as “only just”.

So let this be fair warning to you, your friends or family members.  If you or someone you love is planning on getting a tattoo, stick with a language you can read so you are 100% certain that the tattoo says what you think it says.

That’s today public service message.  Cheers.