Bad translations of road signs occur in all languages and at all latitudes: incomprehensible instructions, words out of context and hilarious phrases that make one think that no translator was consulted when it was needed most.
Some of these errors cause confusion or hilarity even when the grammar and spelling are impeccable. Others, however, can constitute a serious danger to public safety. Below we present a selection of poorly translated road signs, with different nuances ranging from the incomprehensible to the hilarious (and sometimes unfortunately even dangerous).
Bad signage in Wales
One of the most well-known road sign translation errors concerns Wales. The BBC dedicated space to the news about ten years ago. A local authority in Wales sent an email to a language service provider requesting a translation from English into Welsh of a road sign which was intended, at least, to indicate a HGV ban.
The translator apparently wasn’t in the office and an automatic response in Welsh arrived in the municipal office’s email inbox which read more or less like this: “I’m not in the office at the moment, you can still send me the work to be translated.” public authority, presumably anxious to complete its task, duly ordered the sign printed.After the sign was put up, the Welsh speakers pointed out that the supposed Welsh “translation” actually had nothing to do with the transit ban.
When the signals reverse direction
Unfortunately, mistranslations of traffic signs are not always simply funny or confusing. Some of these advise drivers and pedestrians to do the opposite of what they should. An incorrect translation from Chinese to English advised the following: “Drink driving” and a sign in Wales told English-speaking pedestrians to “look right” while instructing Welsh-speaking pedestrians to “look left”.
Signage errors in China
English-speaking visitors visiting China will have been perplexed to read a notice urging them to “note the safe, because slippery people are very cunning”. The hope is that they were not distracted and did not fall due to the slippery pavement, which was what the notice was intended to warn them about. Speaking of China, let it be known that the country is full of nature, greenery and uncontested spaces. Among these pleasant places there was also one that the road signs had translated as “Racist Park”.
The international rules for correctly (almost always) translating road signs
Countries can avoid much of this confusion by using internationally recognized symbols. For example, dozens of countries in Europe refer to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs to create signs with consistent and universally understood symbols and colors.
While useful, however, international symbols are not always sufficient to fully and professionally communicate local traffic rules and instructions. For nearly a century, English-speaking visitors to Japan have sniggered at clumsy English translations of Japanese traffic rules: According to various newspapers in the 1920s, passengers on the ocean liner China were welcomed into Japan with instructions to “play” the horn at female pedestrians and to avoid the “devils stragglers”.
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