Deciphering “Be Careful in the Working Radius”


Mozambique, 2010

Printed on the temporary fencing surrounding a construction site at Maputo airport, Stephen Hobbs notices a strip of bold Chinese characters.  Below it, an accompanying line of text offers an English version: Be careful in the working radius.  Both the Asian text and its corresponding translation appeal to Hobbs’s creative sensibilities: the foreignness of the former’s strokes – which exist for Hobbs as graphic symbols that resist linguistic interpretation – extrinsically sited in the context of a developing African city, and the latter’s potential for multiple readings in processes of production and meaning-making.

Johannesburg, 2013

Mounted on the wall at David Krut Projects, I notice Stephen Hobbs’ test print of Chinese characters that spell out a cautionary instruction not uncommon to construction hoardings in Southeast Asia, where I lived for three years.  When Hobbs next returns to the studio, I use my basic knowledge of Mandarin picked up during that time to articulate my own understanding of each character and character-grouping: isolating definitions and deconstructing the logogrammatic parts, mapping out a more detailed explanation.  Hobbs has arranged the characters as a nine-square grid – echoing a city grid plan and upon which, fortuitously, all Chinese character strokes are also formatted.  This geometric proportioning is consistent with the fēng shǔi (风水) principle of balance, historically used to orient buildings.  New layers of meaning begin to resonate with that dialogue between information- and city-structures which informs Hobbs’ intentions.  “Be careful in the working radius” is more of a paraphrased equivalent than a direct translation – something idiomatic conversions need to negotiate in order to make coherent sense – and yet it is within the clumsiness of the text’s literal breakdown where meaning is most illuminated.  Some things are lost in translation; some things are gained.

Full sentence:

作业半径内注意安全 (Zuòyè bànjìng nèi zhùyì ānquán)
= “Be careful in the working radius”

Individual characters:

作 (zuò)
= (v.) make, do, compose
= (n.) work, writing

业 (yè)
= (v.) practise a profession
= (n.) industry, business, enterprise

半 (bàn)
= (n.) half

径 (jìng)
= (n.) path, means, diameter

内 (nèi)
= (prep.) within, inside

注 (zhù)
= (v.) note, register, record

意 (yì)
= (v.) advise, suggest, propose
= (n.) meaning, intention, sense*

安 (ān)
= (v.) pacify, fix
= (n.) peace
= (adj.) safe, secure, quiet, calm**

全 (quán)
= (adj.) whole, entire, complete

Character-groupings (concepts):

= (n.) operation, work, production

= (n.) radius

= (v.) take note, pay attention, heed, mind

= (n.) safety, security

* 意 contains 音 (yīn) meaning “sound”/”tone”, and 心 (xīn) meaning “heart”

** 安 contains the same overarching “roof” or “ceiling” stroke as 家 (jiā) meaning “home”, and 女 (nǚ) which refers to the “feminine”

Pseudo/re-imagined translations:

“We advise caution along the path of industry.”
“Pay attention to safety inside the business arena.”
“Heed security measures in the vicinity of production.”
“Take precaution upon entering professional environments.”
“Please mind defence strategies at work.”
“Find shelter under the composition structures.”
“Record harmonious means of making.”
“Note quiet meaning within the practice of writing.”
“Observe the pacified whole in creation.”

– Kate Arthur, April 2013