Friday, 27 April 2012

Special objects

Sorry for the proliferation of sign-related posts this week, but I keep seeing them. There's this sign in the lavs in the building where I work:

As you can see, it's an instruction to ladies to throw sanitary products in the special sanitary bins, not down the loo (if they really want us to do that they should provide more than one bin and put them inside the cubicles instead of outside). It tells us that in English, Chinese and Arabic, because it's in the school of modern languages and there are lots of Chinese and Arabic students about.

It also tells us the same again in English, with different wording. It's considerably more polite and almost affectionate in the wording ('please dear ladies') than the first English text, and it also differs in using the euphemism 'special objects'. It has one error in it, using singular 'it' to refer back to the plural 'special objects', although this doesn't necessarily mean it was written by a non-native speaker. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with the English versions that couldn't be fixed with a couple of punctuation marks.

But WHY are there two English versions? My guess is that the second is a translation of the Chinese. I really don't know why this would be the case, but that's how it reads to me. I think the English was written first, then translated into Chinese (and Arabic) and then, for some reason, translated back to English. I'd love someone who reads Chinese to tell me if that's true.

Alternatively, the second English text might have been written first by a Chinese speaker, and then some native English speaker told them it was a bit polite for a sign and rewrote it in a more 'English' way, and somehow both ended up being used.

(By the way, I've assumed Chinese simply because there are a lot more Chinese students in this school than Arabic, so it's just a probability. The above could equally apply to Arabic instead.)


  1. My best detective work (considering I can't read Chinese well) makes me think that the second English version doesn't come from the Chinese. The Chinese text directly mentions 卫生巾 (char. 6-8, wèishēngjīn) "sanitary towels", while the second English version is characterised by the non-conventional euphemism "special objects".

    I think this kind of 'front line' communication is too often not as good as it could be (to put it nicely) because it gets left to the person who snaps first. But for multilingual signs like this, presumably a bit more is involved -- I'm really curious to know what process led to this finished product...

  2. I do read Chinese and the second English version isn't a translation of the Chinese. The Chinese is a close translation of the first English.

    The Chinese is direct and to the point, without euphemism as is the first English version.

    I can't help you with the Arabic, sorry.