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Ministry of Communication Problems

Beijing is currently involved in a campaign to correct embarrassing "Chinglish" errors in public places. The English name of the 2008 Olympic mascots became "Fuwa" after fears that the original name "Friendlies" could be reanalyzed as "friendless" or "friend lies". Last year, Peking University suggested that rules of English grammar demanded that its name be changed to University of Beijing.

With all this attention to proper English, you would expect that the Ministry of Communications (交通部) would be poised to pick a new name that better reflects its responsibilities - administering the country's transportation systems apart from railways and aviation.

In a blog post earlier this month, peripatetic cultural commentator Zhai Hua remarked on the Ministry's name issues (quotation marks indicate words originally in English):

So, if "communication" should not be used for 交通, what then should be used? Simple - "transportation" (including "transport"), or use "road", "railways," and "highways" directly. For example, the American 交通部 is called "Department of Transportation"; the UK's 交通部 is called "Department for Transport." Apart from China, I have not seen one other national government department use "communications" to mean roadways and land & water transport. The English name of Taiwan's 交通部 is "Ministry of Transportation and Communications" - it uses both "transportation" and "communication" - but its responsibilities include telecommunications. In Japan, the English name of the department is the "Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport." In foreign government departments, "communications" typically is placed alongside "information technology", as in India's "Ministry of Communications & Information Technology."

Of course, the standard English translation of 交通部 uses the plural "communications" rather than the singular "communication." However, the fine distinction between the singular and the plural is not enough to avoid misunderstandings. Of the foreigners I have seen dealing with China's government departments, to a man they are all unsure of the translated name "Ministry of Communications," frequently unclear what the scope of its responsibilities really is - they always think it is the department in charge of telecommunications. Some people have taken the opportunity to mock the English levels of Chinese people. The "Ministry of Communications" truly has a "communication" problem.

Southern Metropolis Daily picked up the blog post this week and investigated further. Here's what an office head in the MoC International Exchange Department told a reporter:

At times, this word may be misunderstood. Perhaps people who do not have a firm grasp on the English language may think this is communication (通讯), but this does not affect our international exchanges and cooperation; we've always made quite good progress. There are a few isolated misunderstandings, but they are not serious enough to take the step of changing the name.

...If you use "transportation", it could cause other, new problems; for instance, we have a Ministry of Railroads and a Civil Aviation Authority, too.

Zhai Hua writes that when the former Propaganda Department was looking for a new, gentler identity, chief Ding Guangen initially wanted to use "communication" but was forced to settle for "publicity" because of MoC's hold on the term.

Zhai suggests that although the Beijing government does not have jurisdiction over the Ministry of Communications itself, the ministry's buildings might fall within the scope of the city's effort to clean up English-language signage before 2008. Then again, it might be wise to keep the old name around just in case Beijing's gridlock isn't solved before the Olympics - foreign guests could be given the impression that since China doesn't have a Ministry of Transportation, it must be the private sector's fault.

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There are currently 6 Comments for Ministry of Communication Problems.

Comments on Ministry of Communication Problems

So, is the Bank of Communications really supposed to be the Bank of Transportation, or did they get it right when they translated their name into English?

I am guessing that the Bank of Communications also has a misleading name.

The SMD reporter says at the end of the article:

In November, 1906, the Qing government set up a Postal Department, in charge of water and rail transport as well as the mail, telephone, and telegraph. In 1907, the Postal Department established the Bank of Communications.

Looks like it's a little more justified in this case.

Well, if "fuwa" is supposed to avoid the twisting of native english speakers, I can pour water on their fire.

fuwa = phooey

My fave "bad government Chinglish" is still the name of China's #1 broadcaster: CCTV

Ok, so you want an "English" brand. Well, pick one that doesn't already have a meaning in English: "closed-circuit television" indeed.

If you're going to have initials, what is wrong with ZYDST? And, since the "DST" part is simply "television station" if you wanted to port "TV" into the language, presumably so your brand was "sayable", what's wrong with ZYTV?

nanheyangrouchuan - I got the impression that "Fuwa" was mainly meant to avoid the twisting of non-native English speakers. You can't really imagine a native speaker misinterpreting "Friendlies" as "friendless" or "friend lies", unless it was pronounced in a particularly Chinglish manner.

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