Wednesday, June 20, 2012

When Lettuce is Deadly and Milk Makes Paper

By Beth Green

No matter where I travel, I love taking pictures of signs, labels or T-shirts with silly translations and malapropisms.

And while I’ve seen some of these in English-speaking countries (The USA’s “slow children” road signs are a prime example of poorly used English, in my opinion), of course when things are translated from another language into English, the potential for snicker-worthy results is raised.

In China, most people you meet who are in their mid-30s or younger will have had some exposure to English in their schooling. Whether that experience went beyond learning the ABCs or not, everyone’s got some level of familiarity with it. Couple this with the craze for Western luxury items like iPhones, Louis Vuitton and, yes, McDonald’s, and you’ve got an instant way to make your product seem more appealing, exotic and valuable: splash the packaging with English words.

A new shopping mall (housing not only a McDonald’s but also a KFC, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut) recently opened a few blocks from my apartment. Intrigued by the progress, I walked by a few weeks before it was fully opened. The ongoing construction was discreetly screened from pedestrians by large canvasses bearing images of classy-looking people and slogans such as the following: “Reluctant to leave for myself.” Obviously, some designer picked words at random and put them on the banner to give it a little oomph. Too bad it’s nonsensical.

Reluctant to...what?
Perhaps my favorite example of a strange translation is this one, which I found at the local bulk foods supermarket. The label reads like a bizzaro newspaper headline:

That dastardly lettuce.
Other advertisements in China that use English may actually make their product sound not only silly, but also of poor quality. Consider the bus I saw completely covered with this slogan: OK Manly Banner. The best they could say about it was that it’s just OK?

Better than Not Very Manly, I guess.
Or this one, which I’m sure Pepsi can’t have been pleased about:

Perhaps "economical" would sound better? Nah.
This restaurant is also quite modest:

Want to go somewhere "nice" for dinner?
And this shop actually says that they are “no right, just suitable.”

Suitable, but not right?
I found this restaurant ad in Hong Kong downright unappetizing:

Guts for lunch?
Others are just curious…should I write on this or eat it?

I'd heard of onion-skin paper before, I guess...
Some slightly risque (or maybe dangerous?!):

At least they're small.
And still others, kind of sweet:

Me so happy too.
What examples of silly English have you found on your travels? Please share with us in the comments section below.


  1. Those are great. I don't have any photos, but I've seen a number of fake KFCs and McDonald's while traveling, same colors, logos, etc, with just a slight change in the name.

  2. I love examples of that! There used to be a convenience store in my city, obviously inspired by 7-11, that called itself "9-11." Clearly, they hadn't realized the other meanings of 9-11.

  3. LOVE this piece, Beth! I'm a collector of signs as well. Especially the Chinese ones. ;)

  4. Since you asked, one of my favorite was in the small town of Asti in Italy: "in case of bird, don't panic." Another in Hawaii: "In case of tsunami, don't panic. Pay bill, then run like hell." ;)

  5. And I particularly like "guts for lunch." There was a time when the pediatrician advised my daughter to go off gluten. So imagine my amusement when I was at the local Korean market and had to take a pic of the bottle marked "gluten." It was a bottle of just gluten. Talk about cute.

    1. I guess that makes the gluten easier to avoid?

      For this post I focused on products and marketing silly English. But I have a whole treasure trove of government-funded signage with hilarious things written on them. My favorite of these, though, is probably the sage advice: "Be cautious of danger." Words to live by.

  6. It's not exactly a misuse of English, but on a visit to Papua New Guinea, as I was travelling out of Port Moresby towards the highlands, I was very amused to see a massive sign which read: '6 Mile Dump now open to the public' (as you leave Moresby, the towns are named 1 Mile, 2 Mile etc.)It was all I could do not to hop out of my armed and escorted vehicle and have a quick rummage around :)

  7. Hi Chris, Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Six miles would make a huge dump! You must seen a few good mistranslations when you were in Indonesia as well?

  8. LOVE this piece, Beth! I'm a collector of signs as well. Especially the Chinese ones

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