CHINA Railway Corporation (CRC) is trying to introduce bilingual signs and announcements on its stations and trains in attempt to make it easier for the increasing number of foreigners to navigate their way around the rapidly-expanding high-speed network. However, this is presenting a number of challenges which need to be overcome.
The mindsets for users of English and Chinese are very different. In English, instructions and commands tend to be short and precise, letters and emails are signed off simply, requests are made brief, and signs have as few words as possible.
In contrast, in Chinese formalities and honourifics are common, and an on-train public announcement might start by thanking customers, informing them of the situation and potential dangers, and only then requesting customers to do (or not do) something.
There are also major grammatical differences between English and Chinese. For example, wo chi, which means “I eat,” is expressed the same way whether the person is about to have a meal or is actually eating. Further, in Chinese, plurals are generally not used.
The biggest mistake that can be made is writing English with a Chinese mindset - a phenomenon local linguists refer to as “Chinglish.” Such mistakes are spotted frequently across China, and the increased mobility of Chinese overseas mean the reverse may be true as well.
A common mistake when translating from Chinese to English is to translate character-by-character. For example, “tielu chepiao,” which means railway ticket, is made up of the characters for iron, road, car, and ticket, which is still somewhat comprehensible. However, other terms risk becoming incomprehensible; for example, “ticket gates will close before departure” is “kaiche qian tingzhi jianpiao,” if translated character-by-character, will end up as “drive car before stop halt check ticket,” almost rendering the entire translation as gibberish.
A similar issue arises through “translations” of place names across China, although these can also be done for comical effects such as “Up Sea Rainbow Bridge” for Shanghai Hongqiao high-speed station.
The issue could be partially resolved if some common sense was paid to the order of the words in a proper Chinese to English translation. However, it is still unsatisfactory, and must be replaced by a proper translation conveying the meaning, rather than a rigid word-for-word translation.
The use of language including Mandarin Chinese across the railway network remains confusing at best. Colloquial expressions for “adults” and “children” were used on earlier platform tickets, only to be corrected later. However, onboard announcements for trains that stop for operating reasons, for example to change locomotives, are announced using highly technical language: “This train will stop here only for technical work, and there will be no business for passenger services” is the best translation of the original announcement in Chinese, whereas a more sensible, reworded announcement might simply have been: “We are stopping for technical reasons, and the doors on this train will remain closed.”
CRC tends to use railway technical language rather than more everyday terms. For example, it refers to EMUs for trains travelling at 200km/h or more, rather than simply referring to high-speed trains.
In a controversial move in autumn 2012, the then-Ministry of Railways decided to forcibly change the name of station names so that Pinyin would be used. For example, where the Pinyin for “south” is “nan”, Beijing South station would become “Beijingnan” station.
At first sight, this might seem appropriate as passengers would supposedly remember the station name as simply Beijingnan station, or Gare Beijingnan in French, and Bahnhof Beijingnan in German. However, non-English expatriates translate them fully and properly without the need to use Pinyin compass directions.
It is important to note that the European languages are comparatively mutually closer to one another, whereas the translation of languages from a wholly different language family such as Chinese, which is Sino-Tibetan, instead of Indo-European such as English, requires a full, proper translation.
Analysis was conducted in early 2013 across a wide and representative range of expatriates from different countries and professions, with the majority preferring a proper translation such as Beijing South rather than Beijingnan. The current system is linguistically illogical and geographically confusing as passengers arriving at Beijingnan might think they have reached the city of “Beijingnan”, potentially entirely separate from the city of Beijing, and at odds with clearly-prescribed national norms.
The risk of staying with Pinyin and refusing to translate text properly into English remains in the translation of the newest Chinese high-speed train, the 350km/h Fuxing Hao. The Chinese name of this train literally means “revival train” which is a nod to national policy - the Great Chinese Revival, or the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. However, the presence of the letter X can be confusing, as there is no obvious hint to the uninitiated to read this as “Fushing” where the X is read as “sh” instead of “ks”. The Fuxing Hao train is correctly translated as the Revival Express in both onboard brochures and souvenir postcards.
It is obviously important to avoid grammatical errors and spelling mistakes on station signs. One amusing example was a sign reading “Caution scald bums,” which was supposed to warn about a boiler dispensing extremely hot water. Even if the spelling was corrected to read “Caution scald burns,” it would remain awkward. A sign that read “Caution! Hot” or “Warning! Hot water” is both easier, shorter, and conveys the message far better.
The final challenge is that despite the lack of a standardised form, a unified norm is currently being implemented across the national rail network. In addition to the continued use of expressions with grammatical and spelling errors, there is confusion in how this is being implemented at lower levels.
Standards intended for stations are merely limited to static signs across the national network, while those used by regional railway enterprises remain the business of that particular enterprise. Furthermore, signs on trains have only recently been standardised using a different norm. There does not appear to be a unified standard for either digital displays or station announcements beyond the basics of train departure time, train number, origin, and destination. This is a particular problem where safety information and travel advice need to be displayed.
More confusingly, different stations use their own translations. For example, the terms used to describe or advertise travel assistance for mobility-impaired passengers vary wildly. Beijing West station refers to them as “courtesy passengers,” while Shanghai stations use the awkwardly long term “passenger who needs care.” Some stations in central and eastern China may also use the term “key” passenger. The new standardised norm prefers the term “special care” passenger.
In designing a new bilingual railway interface, up to 1000 railway stations worldwide were visited over the course of a decade, with pictures taken and conversations held in the form of railway lessons and discussion courses mostly on the Chinese railway network. Railway staff were encouraged to specify events which proved difficult to explain to any passenger. Many books and documents on wayfinding were extensively consulted. The creation of this new interface is based on a few fundamental design principles:
- standardisation on British English due to the larger population of those in countries using in particular Commonwealth English.
- simplification of terminology, for example, automatic ticket machine was simplified to ticket machine
- full, proper translations expressing a proper meaning were used and compass directions are now fully and properly translated.
- the use of down-to-earth, easy-to-understand terms for branded services, so that passengers requiring assistance are progressively being served under the unifying brand of Special Care passengers
- the creation of a single, unified database shared across the entire national rail network encompassing all situations as seen in stations, onboard trains, at transfer points, in emergencies, for general use, and for specific groups of passengers
- deployment of the Everyday Rail English series of books and other bilingual documentation across the network to encourage the use of a new, unified bilingual railway interface, and
- the translation of previously Chinese-only signage and text on digital displays into a coherent, unified bilingual standard incorporating English.
This new interface is being progressively deployed across the railway network. Ji’nan West station in eastern China has seen the most significant change, with much of its signage now in proper English. It is also one of the first railway hubs to display bilingual travel and security information to travellers.
English for ticketing services has been improved. Passengers who need to alter a booking now use the easier term rebook or rebooking at stations in Zhengzhou or Nanning, rather than the previous terms change or transfer.
Bilingual signage also makes CRC appear more international. While there is greater focus on bilingual signage during events hosted in China where China plays a key role of global significance, there is still a need to use properly translated terms in English for international passengers. The full deployment of a continuously-improved bilingual railway interface will enable CRC to broaden its appeal.