General Translator's Unvegetarian Delight

A wonderful comic instance of menu translation was just forwarded me, & you can check the whole thing out here. It’s a very large Chinese menu, so I’ll only quote a couple items, plus one of the respondents analysis of the translation of a specific item. Of course we, or at least I, couldn’t do 1/100 as well, trying to translate my breakfast menu into Chinese… Wondering if one could write a sort of reverse piece to what Charles Bernstein did a few years back with the emails & letters from his Chinese translator.

The actual menu starts with a range of other delightful items such as “Cowboy leg” and the like. Check it out for yourselves. Here is one of the reader’s letters, from someone — though anonymous — who seems to know:

Oh, this is so not made up. I’ve travelled to China for 20 years and this is TYPICAL, though I must admit it’s a classic example. If you read Chinese (as the previous commenter clearly doesn’t), you can see exactly how each of the errors was made. They’re all perfectly logical, even if the result is unintentionally hilarious.

Take #1313, “Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk.” It should read “Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu.” However, the mangled version above is not as mangled as it seems: it’s a literal word-by-word translation, with some cases where the translator chose the wrong one of two meanings of a word:

First two characters: “ma la” meaning hot and spicy, but literally “numbingly spicy” — it means a kind of Sichuan spice that mixes chilies with Sichuan peppercorn or prickly ash. The latter tends to numb the mouth. “Benumbed hot” is a decent, if ungrammatical, literal translation.

Next two: “jiu cai,” the top greens of a fragrant-flowering garlic. There’s no good English translation, so “vegetables” is just fine.

Next one: “chao,” meaning stir-fried, quite reasonably rendered as “fries” (should be “fried,” but that’s a distinction English makes and Chinese doesn’t).

Finally: “gan si” meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as “dry silk.” The problem here is that the word “gan” means both “to dry” and “to do,” and the latter meaning has come to mean “to fuck.” Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China means people choose the vulgar translation way too often, on the grounds that it’s colloquial. Last summer I was in a spiffy modern supermarket in Taiyuan whose dried-foods aisle was helpfully labeled “Assorted Fuck.” The word “si” meaning “silk floss” is used in cooking to refer to anything that’s been julienned — very thin pommes frites are sold as “potato silk,” for instance. The fact that it’s tofu is just understood (sheets of dried tofu shredded into julienne) — if it were dried anything else it would say so.


Best wishes from an anonymous professor of China studies 🙂

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1 Response

  1. John Sakkis says:

    this is great…

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