No spitting

No spitting sign in a café in Shaukeiwan

No spitting sign in a café in Shaukeiwan

If you grew up Hong Kong in the 60s, 70s or even 80s you would have seen this sign posted around the city, especially in restaurants and cafés. You still see these signs occasionally, but they are becoming rarer now. I found this in a bakery café in Shaukeiwan.

For those who can’t read Chinese, they might wonder why the Chinese part of the message has 35 words, while the English has a mere two. I’ll try to translate the Chinese verbatim here:

Urban Services Department notice || Spitting is a nuisance to others || Offenders may be liable for a $2,000 fine || A cause for the spread of Tuberculosis || It’s a hygiene law that should be abided by

The Chinese is written as a rhyme, in four lines with seven syllables each, rather like a poem (七言古詩). The heading tells you the department responsible. The rhyme format makes the message very memorable and, indeed, many people from that generation could easily recite it. Compared with the rather stern and concise ‘No spitting’ in English, the Chinese provides a lot more information and politely asks you to consider others and abide by the law. It is poetic but also firm in its tone. Of course, the cultural and literary nuances were all but lost in my translation.

The combination of the Roman caps for the English and the Kai (楷書) calligraphic script for the Chinese is typical of the era – a very elegant and dignified solution that is suitable for the formality required in an official notice. The white lettering on a black background further enhances this formality. The letter/character spacing, line spacing and the slightly smaller and shorter title are all very well considered.

Wouldn’t the non-Chinese speakers be missing out on a lot of important information? How would they feel when the English only has two words but the Chinese has much more to offer? Without sounding too discriminatory, it is rather clear that the notice was largely intended for Chinese people, who have (had?) a habit of spitting on the ground. Therefore the sign isolates one language group as a ‘main target’, and provide the other language group a much simpler ‘token translation’.

Is it necessary to aim for absolute parallelism in a bilingual message? Or is this approach perfectly acceptable?

Categories bilingualism, signage, typography
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