For travellers, China is known for many things: a long and rich history, a dynamic economy, and horribly bad English translations. The Internet abounds with examples of cringe-worthy English translations of Chinese signage; however, that may all be changing as China plans to begin using a new English translation standard designed by the Standardization Administration and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
While this may reduce the comedy value, bad English translation has actually become a very sensitive area for the Chinese government, which views it as a threat to Chinese prestige and attractiveness. To combat this, the government is attempting to improve the quality of English translation in 13 key public areas that are in high contact with foreign travellers – such as entertainment, medicine, and transportation. Along with public translation, the government also will be providing a list of 3,500 commonly used phrases and terms, to aid with personal interaction.
Looking at the basic numbers, it is easy to understand the urgency of the push to improve language skills. From 2010 to 2016, the number of foreign visitors arriving in China increased from 26.12 million to 28.15 million, an upturn of 7.7%. At the same time international tourism receipts surged 175%, from USD 45.81 billion to USD 126 billion. Considering that tourist arrivals from the 4 largest English speaking nations (the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) only edged up by approximately 50,000 in the same time period, the rush to improve English may seem a bit puzzling, until you realize that English is also an international language of business – and China is quickly becoming a business power.
Comparing foreign direct investment (FDI) numbers from the last 6 available years (2010-2016) not only show what of a global business player China is becoming, but also how fast it is happening. Since 2010, China’s inward stock of FDI (aka the cumulative investment foreign business makes in China) has increased by 82%, from USD 1.569 trillion to USD 2.865 trillion, far outpacing the EU’s increase of 16% and coming tantalisingly close to the USA’s increase of 92%. Still, what is really showing China’s global emergence is its level of outward FDI (aka the cumulative investment Chinese companies are making abroad): in 6 years, Chinese outward FDI stock has grown from USD 317 billion to USD 1.317 trillion, an astonishing gain of 315%. In comparison, the US and EU managed 32% and 9% respectively.
Seeing things through the eyes of the Chinese government or a Chinese business, such promising economic data doesn’t fit in with a society that can’t effectively communicate in other languages, specifically English. Though programs like the one currently being enacted will surely help, a comprehensive understanding of business English (or any other language, for that matter) will extend far beyond 3,500 common phrases; moreover, sensitive business documents shouldn’t be trusted with machine translations. In order to be able to effectively do business with companies around the globe and meet consumers regardless of location, all businesses – Chinese or not- should seek the assistance of a company that can provide fast, efficient professional human translations.