Dec 10, 2008

The Opposite of Manglish: Asian Text as Art Background That Might Bite


L
ooking for a beautiful, exotic graphic of Chinese text to adorn the cover of your science journal? A stalwart and universally respected journal, with a cover that proclaims the fortitude of your publication that features China prominently? Well, look no further than an advertising handbill for a strip club that extols the virtues of "Hot Housewives in action!" Here's how it all went down:

Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming "Hot Housewives in action!" on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their "enchanting and coquettish performance" was highly recommended.


When I lived in Japan, the reverse happened all over the place. Cool stretches of English language text adorned everything from billboards to undergarments, a la Engrish.com. I had a pair of workout shorts that exclaimed "Octopus Army," as well as a rice cooker that declared, "All Ways. A life wrapped in tenderness will make your heart noble." (Actually, the last one makes some sort of poetic sense, but still.) It was all about the visual effect. The neato factor. No one—other than the foreign community in Japan—was going around actually reading these graphical bits. They were decor.

Now, in a world that is looking with increasing reverence to the East for its cues on what's cool, Westerners see more and more token snippets of Japanese or Chinese adorning our goods. Until recently, you could walk in any Trader Joe's grocery store and buy a package of Japanese rice crackers with a giant character for the word "woman" on the front. I even went so far as to point out that the package contained nothing to do with women and that surely the word for woman was unrelated to snack crackers, but the clerk I spoke with only gave a shrug as if to say, "We don't care. It's Asian. As long as it sells." In other words, we are culturally superior and therefore need not worry ourselves with sensitivity or respect. Much less homework.

After the Max Planck Institute debacle, though, I hope this cultural myopia will finally go away. At least get text checked by a native before sending a product off to a wide audience, or as Confucius say, "Egg on face will be your own."

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