Engrish.com is a humorous site where you can see a travesty of translation, mostly poor translations of English from Chinese. Yet this example is pretty much exactly what it says. The first two characters, 严 yan and 禁 jin form the word for “strictly prohibited,” The latter two, 嬉 xi and 戏 xi each individually mean play, and together mean “carefree play.” If you listen to it, 嬉戏 (Xīxì) even has a playful sound about it, being a paired syllable with a sing-song pronunciation.
The sign would be an obvious admonition from playing in an area, likely due to hazardous conditions. It would be similar to this English-language equivalent: Now consider this English-language idiomatic expression translated back into Chinese, or into any other language, for that matter. “Running” seems straight-forward. But “horseplay?” Would it confuse a naive interpreter by making them think you shouldn’t be playing with horses? Would the synonym “roughhousing” make any more sense? (“What does this have to do with a house?”)
So while many English-language speakers like to giggle at poor translations of other languages into English, imagine how some foreign readers must interpret our own words as quite silly! Idioms often don’t translate literally or directly; equivalencies need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
By the way, even though there are posted signs to the contrary on our blog, feel free to have fun today!