Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Racial slur on sofa label stuns family

Needed: good editor for Chinese-English dictionaries

Never mind what the shrimp did to the cabbage -- look at what another bad Chinese-English dictionary entry did to a sofa! Joel Martinsen has drawn my attention to a blog post by Jeff Keller (" A reeeeaaally bad translation", 4/10/2007) which in turn points to a newspaper article (Jim Wilkes, "Racial slur on sofa label stuns family ", Toronto Star, 4/6/2007) that starts this way:

When the new chocolate-coloured sofa set was delivered to her Brampton home, Doris Moore was stunned to see packing labels describing the shade as "Nigger-brown."

Apparently the sofa (or at least enough of it to provide the label) was imported from China, and according to Jeff Keller's blog entry, the translation provided for 深棕色 "dark brown" in many Chinese-English glossaries is "nigger-brown".

A quick Baidu search for that offensive adjective showed [that it's] mentioned all over the place as an acceptable translation of 深棕色, otherwise known as "dark brown." Four people on this Baidu forum give n-brown as the most preferred translation! They even give a link to a dictionary entry that supports this translation! I only saw one search result that cautioned against using that translation. Other companies come up on the search that officially use this word as well.

A google search turns up an old [1959] prospectus for a school at Oxford that describes the school uniforms as being n-brown. I can only guess that this used to be a widely used term, which carried over into China back in the day, and during all those years of separation from the west the dictionaries kept giving that as the proper translation. I suppose as a good netizen I should register on all those forums and try to make sure no one else makes that mistake again. But then again, when something gets ingrained in the Chinese system it can be damn near impossible to get people to change.

Perhaps the economic damage from angry overseas customers will have an effect that complaints from linguists don't.

It's easy to see how this offensive term got into Chinese dictionaries -- the OED's entry for nigger includes this section:

3. Forming nouns and adjectives denoting or designating a dark shade of a specified colour, as nigger-brown, -grey, -pink, etc. Cf. sense A. 11. Now rare ( offensive).

1915 Home Chat 2 Jan. 11/1 Nigger-brown cloth.
1922 D. H. LAWRENCE England, my England 116 She was wearing a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.
1930 J. DOS PASSOS 42nd Parallel I. 124 On each table there were niggerpink and vermilion paper flowers.
1960 V. WILLIAMS Walk Egypt 89 A dry-goods store showed a dress of 'nigger-pink'.
1983 Listener 21 July 4/1 'It's a common phrase that is used throughout the land,' he said. 'And what about the colour nigger brown?'