Today, the Daily Telegraph published menus of the lunch and dinner served to the British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday in Beijing. Lunch, apparently, was ‘hors d’oeuvres’, creamy mushroom soup, beef steak Chinese style, bamboo fungus with green vegetables and boiled sea bass, followed by pumpkin cream with sago, ‘pastries’ and fruit. Dinner was another ‘hors d’oeuvres’, sturgeon’s marrow and bamboo fungus soup, boiled lobster claw with peach gum and saffron, codfish roll with bacon, sauteed shredded pork in chilli and garlic sauce, steamed duck and taro paste with rice wine, assorted vegetables in casserole and rice congee with gingko, followed by more ‘pastries’ and fruit. 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…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Menus / 3 Comments
Thanks to Cool Culinaria for sending me samples from their new collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menu prints, which date from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s! The originals come from the Harvey Spiller Collection, which is apparently the largest privately-owned Chinese menu collection in the world. They offer a fascinating glimpse not only into the food, but the imagery used to sell Chinese food in America, including ‘chop suey’ fonts and dragons. Two early examples particularly caught my eye. The cover of the Bill of Fare from the Hong Far Low, a restaurant in Boston in the 1930s, displays a black-and-white photographic portrait of a serious-looking man in a traditional Chinese gown with cloth fastenings, who is described as ‘the first man in Boston who made Chop Suey in 1879′. The menu itself is only in English and clearly aimed at American customers, with sections on fried chicken, chicken chop suey, chow mein fried noodles, chop suey, omelets and salads, and a collection of very unChinese-sounding desserts, such as chocolate cake. 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.
The photographer Ian Cumming was my partner-in-crime on one of my Xinjiang food research trips. It was a hilarious couple of weeks: we were trailed by secret police and asked to leave our ‘weapons, explosives and isobactive materials’ at hotel receptions; Ian was hassled by prostitutes while I was repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute myself (given my scruffy clothes and lack of make-up, I can’t imagine how anyone would have thought I was soliciting for custom!); and I was unable to fasten my trousers for the entire trip because I had badly scalded my midriff with a kettle of boiling water the night before departure, which meant I had to go around with a loose silk cummerbund wrapped around my waist for a month to avoid disturbing the wound. Having said all that, and despite the tense political atmosphere, Xinjiang was fascinating and beautiful, and we met some wonderful people.
Anyway, Ian has just returned from a trip to Italy, where he dined in an apparently very smart restaurant with a menu whose translations rival the very worst Chinglish atrocities (see this link for my Financial Times piece on Chinese restaurant menu translations). This is an excerpt from Ian’s email, reproduced with his permission:
Imagination of Lubranese Sea
First dishes included:
Drops of it gleans with clam and rucola
Linguine to escapes him
Spaghetti to the veracious clams
Second dishes included…
Fished to the crazy water
Fish boiled to vapor
And my favourite…
Resentful of calf to the lemon
Then in the section entitled “Chef’s Contours”…
Any of you got any favourites?
I have to mention that when I was looking through one of my China notebooks this morning, I found a note about ‘one of best-ever translations!’, found on a Suzhou restaurant menu. It was
‘Boiled the soup with the ovary of toad’
I laughed a lot, because the idea of eating TOAD’s ovaries was so horrible, until I realised that the translation itself actually wasn’t too far off the mark, because it was actually a soup made with FROG ovaries (xue ha), and that while I might not myself find a frog ovary soup revolting, most normal English people probably would…