Shijiazhuang is the capital city of Hebei, a province in northeastern China that borders Beijing. In 2012, the the city government announced its plans to build a subway system for the metropolitan area, which would service about six million people. Planning was already underway; construction started about a year later.
At the time I was teaching linguistics at the local Hebei Normal University, doing UX writing and voiceover work for various university departments, which attracted the notice of the provincial media bureau. They approached me in 2016 to record English language announcements for the train cars to supplement the Mandarin in an effort to present the city as more internationally-minded.
I was originally tasked simply with reading and recording the lines, but upon receiving them I found that many of the translations, while grammatically correct, were clearly translated directly out of Mandarin.
While the intention to make public transportation more accessible to the city’s growing foreign population was commendable, it was clear that the copy provided would only be counterproductive, if not outright dangerous.
I approached my contact at the telecom bureau and explained my view of the situation, showing examples of some announcements that needed no changes; others that could be rephrased to better follow convention; and still others that would need to be rewritten completely. I showed the difference between the words’ literal meanings and their phrasal connotations, and proposed changes.
Fortunately, my contact was on my side and in full agreement. We researched international standards; he helped me understand each message’s intent; and I developed a voice for the announcements that was formal but friendly. The final wordings I produced were clear and concise, and were welcomed by the stakeholders.
I recorded the lines a few months later, and the metro opened in June 2017. It is still being expanded to service more of the Shijiazhuang metropolitan area. As such, I periodically return to the studio to revise and record announcements as more stations were added.
Header image by Jeremiah Christie. All other images courtesy of the Shijiazhuang Metro. Used by permission.