How “Cannot Recycle” Becomes “Organism” in Trash Talk

The Chinese may have a bad record when it comes to waste disposal and environmental protection, however, they have already begun the implementation of waste segregation practices. This is a good start, but due to a mistranslation, “cannot recycle” or non-recyclable, has become “organism.” This is one jump in the language that ends up as a mistranslation.

Mangling non-recyclable and ending up with “organism” is not trivial, and neither is it easy. The closest thing to an explanation is that somebody knows only one word, “organism” and used it. That is a harsh assessment, and a weak attempt at humor. However, it is a big stretch from non-recyclable, or “cannot recycle.” There is no point in dwelling on this. The nearest phrase that can be used as a jump-off point for this mistake is “organic waste.” However, even, “organic waste” is not necessarily “not recyclable.”

The use of English in common signs the world over does not necessarily mean that these will be correctly translated. The problem is that it is easier to use a common language, in this case English, in order to convey a message to other foreigners. In Beijing, it is easier to find a Chinese local who is literate and fluent in English, rather than someone who knows German, Spanish or French. However, a French, German or Spanish native-speaker visiting China would most probably know English. This makes English an easy choice as a second language for common signs, and as a common denominator in trade and commerce.

This idea, however, does not mean that once it is embraced, all will become very easy from there. The case in point to prove otherwise is the above attempt at translating segregated waste from Chinese to English. In years to come, this should no longer be a problem. There would be more English speaking natives. In the meantime, this type of mistranslation is expected to appear in other common place signs.

Image credit – via Pinterest

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