Language is an art, like brewing or baking…. It certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learnt.

–Charles Darwin

Cultural Acceptance of Poor Language Skills and Bad Translation

Lately I have been finding a lot of Heavy Metal music from China. It’s hard to find, but there are a couple of places on eBay that are probably making a good living from selling niche music to overseas buyers. I know I pay in shipping nearly what the digital version of these things would normally cost – but not Amazon nor iTunes nor any other digital marketplace serving the US sells what I’m looking for.

One of the things that I’ve noticed since watching some of these Chinese metal videos on YouTube and reading the liner notes is that the English translations are just plain terrible. Not only are they incorrect or just poor translations but in many cases, the translation looks like it was done by a computer and there are bugs in it. For example, in one set of liner notes that I just got, the English title for a song is I am Willing to Follow. This translation is correct, but it is used as the English song title for four more songs, one of which is actually in English. How do you screw up the English version of a song title that is already in English?! … It’s like nobody even bothered to quality check the English version of the liner notes.

This isn’t a problem localized to just liner notes of imported CDs. It seems that, to a large extent, there is a cultural acceptance of poor, lazy, or incomplete translations to English, with special lack of attention paid to the grammar. In fact, we have a derogatory term for this that you will find all over the Internet, it’s called Engrish.

So why does this happen? What makes it so that when I learn Chinese, I stress and fret about every little detail to make sure that I am using the best possible grammar, that I am not leaving off words or using words that look dictionary-identical but, when spoken, are incorrect in context?

What makes it so that I care so much about speaking proper Chinese but but there is a systemic lack of passion about getting English translations correct coming from China (and other countries, I see this thing coming from Japan,too, and you used to see it in virtually every Asian-origin video game in the 90s).

As a student of language, a student of culture, a people watcher, and a writer, I am fascinated by this phenomenon and I truly do want to know its origin. I really do want to know the history of why the scales are so tipped in one direction.

I can sit at a table at the office and a coworker whose native language is not English can absolutely massacre the English language and brutalize and torture its rules of grammar but not a single person will take that coworker aside later and help them with it or venture to correct it. Even if they did so, such an advance would be unwelcome.

Some shop owners in NYC who have been in that city, selling to native English speakers for thirty years still cannot manage a single sentence of proper English. With 30 years of exposure to this language, if you don’t speak it properly, you are choosing not to. In other words, you don’t care if you speak proper English.

So, in short, what makes a culture as a whole not care about clearly translating their product manuals (or music lyrics)? What makes an immigrant not care about the dominant language of their new home? What makes someone like me, who has every excuse to butcher a foreign language, spend so much time and effort so that when I speak that language, I do so with respect?

To me, this has nothing to do with race, racism, or prejudice. To me, this is a very anthropological and sociological question and I really wish I did know the answer. So, if any of the four of you who read this blog can point to sources of information on this phenomenon, I would love to see those links.

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