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Pretending to care, or: How Taiwan’s Government is afraid of using English

You cannot say Taiwan’s government does not care for foreigners. For example, they regularly advertise their 24-hour hotline for foreigners (0800-024-111) in English papers like the Taipei Times – but then again, the ad is Chinese only.

Back in November, the Ministry of Transportation and Communication announced a web contest to root out badly translated English signs. Good idea, bad execution: The website was Chinese only. Pity the Taipei Times did not notice it back then, I thought.

Now, this „contest“ is over and the Taipei Times fell for the Ministry again. Reason enough for me to sit down and write this letter to the editor, which so far has not been printed, so I post it here.

Click here for more English posts on this otherwise mostly German blog.

Ministry’s „Chinglish signs“ contest a sham

Does anyone actually believe that all over Taiwan, there are only 72 signs with bad English translations? Yet that is what the Ministry of Transportation wants us to believe, according to a recently finshed call for entries on Facebook, and the Taipei Times fell for it („Netizens root out Chinglish Signs“, Feb 17, p.2). „This showed that problems with bilingual signs are not as serious as some people might think“, said the Deputy Minister.

Actually, all it shows is how the Ministry succeeded in getting the results it wanted. This whole contest was a sham, giving away Wiis and other gifts or not. The Facebook site and website were not even linked to from the Ministry’s own Website, and worst of all it was in Chinese only, thereby effectively excluding the vast majority of foreigners living in Taiwan from participating – precisely those people who know best about the problem. I would have expected the Taipei Times of all media to report on the inanity of this concept, but alas, maybe the reporter did not know how to find the websites either.

Furthermore, the ministry singled out signs from Tainan and Kaohsiung as being especially badly translated, playing to cliches of southern Taiwanese as clueless country bums. How about taking a look instead at the official English booklet for this year’s Lantern Festival, published by the Taipei City Government? Prepare for some good laughs, though, as obviously no native English speaker had a look at it, ever. Talk about losing face – is this how Taipei City wants to present itself to foreigners?

Having pointed this out, I will also take my Wii now, thank you very much.




Klaus Bardenhagen

Klaus Bardenhagen


6 Antworten

  1. You have valid points. As for me, I probably would not move to Taiwan, had I not met my current girlfriend. But I had plans to travel here before I met her and I think I would not get lost, even if I didn’t have anyone to rely on.

    Not sure, why you inserted those world wars, but I guess my argument can be misinterpreted, I apologize for that. I have in no way tried to imply that you as a German have no right to criticize Taiwan for that. I would never even think about these wars, if you haven’t mention them explicitly in your reply. I just wanted to say, that because of some similarities Taiwan and Slovenia shared, I can relate to the mindset of the local population well. I just generally think the English signage problem is insignificant here, that’s all.

    Let me be clear, I don’t tell anyone how or what they should criticize in Taiwan. After all, you’re a reporter, it’s your job. I’m just a reader and I share my 2 cents on the issue. If I came across as arrogant, I apologize, that wasn’t my intention. My reply was just targeting the issue of English signage in general, that’s all. We have different views on that, which is fine to me. But that’s all it is, it’s not personal and it has nothing to do with you being German.

    Hope that’s clear now 🙂

  2. I told my girlfriend about this web contest and she had no clue about it. Most of her friends also had no clue about it. Even that Facebook page has only 2000 likes, compare that to a Facebook page of a clothes shop in Taiwan. So I’m not surprised that only 72 bad translations were found.

    I would not say the contest was a sham, it just poorly executed. I think, if foreigners live here, they should speak and read Chinese. If you want to fix a bad translation, you need to know Chinese, don’t you think? Sure, a native English speaker can easily spot a spelling mistake, but when it comes to the meaning, you need to have a good grasp of both English and Chinese in order to fix it. And I’m not sure many non-Taiwanese residents are good at that.

    As for the government websites in English, I have never used them for anything. I think most foreign visitors to Taiwan will check websites and blogs written by foreigners to get their travel information with all the tips, recommendations and warnings. Personal blogs have replaced these formal websites many years ago. Every time my girlfriend and I travel to some small town in Taiwan, we will check local bloggers to see what to expect, what food to try, what famous spot to see. I don’t really care what kind of English websites the government makes and I think most people don’t. So I see no problem with Taipei Times writing that article.

    I have to say, coming from a small country like Slovenia, which has never invaded other countries, never meddled in affairs of others, I find it sometimes hard to criticize every little thing in Taiwan. I accept many things the way they are and I try to understand them, even if I think they’re not good. I always try to see the big picture and reflect about how things would be done in my country. Comparing to Slovenia, Taiwan is not so bad. Even compared to Vienna (from where I usually fly to Asia), I think Taipei and Kaohsiung have a much better signage in English. If I wasn’t fluent in German, I would be totally lost in Vienna’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn system. I’m not sure about Germany, because I’ve never been there, but I wonder how is the situation in cities like Berlin and Hamburg for those visitors, who are not fluent in German.

    1. Nino, I cannot agree with you that „if foreigners live here, they should speak and read Chinese“. While I am certainly trying to live up to that, there are many expats for whom it is just not feasible. Some are working really long hours, some are too old to have a chance of ever becoming fluent in a language like Chinese (hell, I was over 30 when I started).

      So yes, I encourage and applaud every foreigner in Taiwan who does try to get a grip on Chinese, but I do not think you can make it mandatory. Otherwise, you are basically telling a lot of pro-Taiwan-minded foreigners who can contribute a lot to this country to get lost.

      How would you have settled down here, had it not been for your Taiwanese girlfriend? Would you have been able to really find your way through all those local blogs, let alone make sense of the menus in those restaurants they recommend, without relying on locals?

      As for the contest, I think it would have made perfect sense if non-Chinese-speaking foreigners could just have sent in examples of weird translations. I agree, you need to know Chinese in order to fix a bad translation – but not to spot it.

      I am not criticizing the Taipei Times for writing that article. I am criticizing it for apparently copy-pasting an official press release, without even bothering to take a look at the contest website.

      Are you implying that I might be more likely to criticize something (or even „every little thing“) in Taiwan because I come from a country that started two world wars, as opposed to Slovenia? Give me a break.

      I love Taiwan as much as you or anyone with his heart in the right place. Because of that, I also think it is important to point out those aspects that still need some fine tuning. Because I cannot stand incompetent officials screwing up the world’s perception of a country that deserves better.

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