Dear Network Rail: Do You Speak Chinese?

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By David Feng – Twitter: @DavidFeng

I was waiting at London Victoria station the other day. Not for someone coming in by train — just with my wife Tracy as we had a fair bit of time to kill before a meeting. Somehow, something caught my eye — a Network Rail “greeting poster” in around 8 languages. Including Japanese, but no Chinese.

That didn’t quite seem to work out to me. The Chinese are coming into town like never before. If we’ve seen Chinese by Gerrard Street, Bicester Village, and even on the brochures and intro leaflets at Westminster Abbey, then Mandarin Chinese must be barking up the right tree.

(A little “欢迎” would have worked in Chinese!)

I’ve also seen this at Piccadilly Circus tube station.

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Very multilingual, yet I was wondering if the Underground would actually wish to add Chinese to the posters — where the same language was already present on the ticket machines.

(The Chinese here: 谨防扒手! 请保管好随身携带的物品。)

However, there is a very serious threat when it comes to the two languages. I’ve seen this in China…

…which makes no sense in English, and this in the UK…

…which just about makes no sense to Chinese.

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(In the first picture, it was supposed to read Warning! Hot, as this was by a boiler, but it looked like your behind was in trouble! In the second example, “touch in and touch out” was replaced in Chinese with “触入 / 触出”, which strictly speaking isn’t too different, but gives readers in China the impression that you are completing (with your Oyster card) an electric circuit — nobody wants to associate those card readers with auto-electrocution machines!)

I know it because this is what happened after travelling around China for miles on end, I’ve run into all kinds of Chinglish. Yes, it’s in the “ASCII alphabet”, so to speak, but it just doesn’t make any sense.

Then I started correcting these errors on my very own initiative on Weibo, which if you must is “China’s Twitter” (but far more interactive; never worry about “the censors”). Within days I had found railway stations in China being very interested in this. It evolved into bilingual postings throughout Chinese social media, retweeted and read by literally millions. It became a series of e-lessons in their own right. I’d be briefing railway stations and train crew on how to say this or that in English — the right way — and how to make sense of Chinese terms and expressions in English.

So when you see “rail English / rail Chinese” here, you’re looking at tried-and-tested solutions — I’ve done my homework, having being around nearly 500 railway stations and over 500 Tube / Subway / Metro stations throughout the world. Here’s just a sampler of what could be “how we write it” in Chinese — 12 random (and not-so-random!) signposts I see that deserve a Chinese equivalent in simplified characters…

1. Northbound / eastbound / southbound / westbound trains = 北行 / 东行 / 南行 / 西行列车

(Note: “列车” means “trains”; in Chinese there is almost no ned for a space.)

2. Stand Back — Train Approaching = 列车进站,注意安全

(The Chinese actually means “Train entering, pay attention to safety”, but this is exactly what is being said in stations in China.)

3. Ticket holders only = 凭票进站

(In Chinese this really means “with a ticket you have the right to enter the station”.)

4. The next station is Farringdon = 下一站: Farringdon

(Yes, in Chinese, it’s that easy.)

5. Ticket Machine = 自动售票机

(In Chinese it actually means automatic ticket machine — a little redundant, but that’s how it works…)

6. Permit To Travel = 基本旅行票证

(It reads as “basic travel ticket” in Chinese because that’s what a Permit To Travel is, really: a “ticket” that starts at 5p that allows you to board the train without breaking the law — but which requires you to hand the permit over and to pay the remaining fare when you have your tickets inspected.)

7. Keep back from the platform edge = 请远离站台边缘

(Basically, “please away from the platform boundary”).

8. Weekend engineering works. Please check before you travel. = 部分线路周末施工,请出行前提前了解相关消息。

(If you translate like exactly like this, a mainland Chinese will wonder if one of their own people was at the controls when this was being typed.)

9. Obstructing the doors can be dangerous = 请勿阻挡车门,以免发生危险

(Here the Chinese reads: Please don’t block the doors, so to avoid dangerous situations.)

10. Door not in use = 车门停用

(Character-for-character, word-for-word: “Vehicle door stop use”.)

11. Please buy your ticket before you board the train = 上车前请先购买车票

(In Chinese we use characters meaning “up vehicle” to mean boarding, and “down vehicle” to mean alighting.)

12. Mind the gap = 小心间隙

(Hong Kong knows best.)

Oh and the one last extra at ticket gates: Seek assistance = 请联系工作人员

(In essence “please contact working staff”, but once again, it’s exactly how it’s said in China.)

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