A friend of mine who is a big cheese in Chinese food circles (or should we say ‘a big tofu’ in these parts?) has asked me for ideas in translating his Chinese term shi xue 食学 (literally ‘Food Studies’). He is proposing that there should be an academic discipline of this name on with the same status as subjects like chemistry, geography and history. It will encompass ecology; food production from farm to plate (including agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, foraging…); cookery; gastronomy; the aesthetics of food; the biological process of eating from mastication through digestion to excretion; food law; nutrition; diet-related diseases; famine and other food disasters; anthropology of food; food education; and so on. Continue reading…
I know it’s something of a cliche to giggle at Chinese menu mistranslations, but the menu I came across at lunchtime today was such a spectacular disaster that I had to share it! Here are some of the linguistic catastrophes on offer in a Shanxi restaurant in Beijing:
荞面灌肠 Buckwheat noodles enema [unfortunately the same Chinese characters are used for an enema and some sausagey-type things]
凉拌莜面 Cold you face [here, the dish is cold oaten noodles, but the character for noodle-type foods (mian) is the same as that for face; and clearly they couldn't find oats in the dictionary so they didn't bother to translate and just gave the pinyin transliteration of the character, 'you']
老醋烧带鱼 Vinegar burning octopus [the character shao can be translated both as 'burn' and as 'braise/cook': the translator clearly got confused here. Mysteriously, the main ingredient isn't octopus at all, but hairtail fish.] Continue reading…
This is the best mistranslation on a Chinese menu that I’ve seen in a long time, Gong Bao chicken rendered as ‘Public explosion chicken!’ Whoever came up with this translation confused the first character with another that sounds the same, and substituted another homonym for the second character. Gong Bao chicken is originally 宫保鸡丁 – which literally means ‘Palace Protector chicken cubes’, because it’s named after a former ‘Palace Protector’, or governor-general, of Sichuan Province, Ding Baozhen. Here, they’ve confused one gong (宫 palace) for another gong (公 public), and substituted the bao that means either 1) ‘fast-fry over a high heat’ or 2) explode for the bao that means ‘protect’ (this latter mistake is a common one). It’s from a menu in southern Yunnan.
Anyway, it’s such a great name for a dish that I’m seriously tempted to use it from now on! (although perhaps it would be better suited for the explosively hot ‘chicken with chillies’ (la zi ji 辣子鸡 )）
Last week I gave a talk at the Free Word Centre in London about the challenges of translating into English the language of Chinese food and cookery (it was part of a series organised by the two translators-in-residence, Nicky Harman and Rosalind Harvey). I gave a few examples of atrocious translations of dish names on Chinese restaurant menus, and then looked at some of the issues confronting translators, including the vast number of specialised culinary terms with no English equivalent, the culturally-specifice gastronomic concepts, and the wit and poetry of Chinese dish names. It all felt particularly relevant at the moment, since I’ve been grappling with the question of how to translate 豆腐 into English in my next book. In my previous books, I’ve translated it as ‘beancurd’, but my current editor favours ‘bean curd’, which to me looks a little awkward. Another option would be to use the standard pinyin transliteration from Chinese: dou fu. Meanwhile, the vast majority of writing in English uses the Japanese-derived term tofu.
I’m pleased to see that an American blog has picked up on the term ‘grapple factor’ – a term invented by my father to describe foods which are very complicated to eat, like tiny birds and shell-on prawns. I find it an invaluable term, myself. What about you?
And have any of you invented any useful words or phrases that you use for food or cookery?