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    The official Chinese menu translations, a revealing look at Sweet and Sour

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 20, 2008

    I just did a post for the Times Olympics blog on the translation, which I will essentially put in a modified form below

    This is what they are trying to avoid:

    chinglish sign

    This month, the Chinese government has officially released its very long list of suggested translations for Chinese dishes in preparation for a tourist-friendly Olympics.

    While a lot of media attention has focused on the dishes with names that are odd in translation (“Chicken Without Sexual Life” and “Husband and Wife Lung Slice”), in reality those are but a handful of the hundreds of dishes on the list, and those English translations are awkwardly chosen.

    Pumping Chinese dishes through a computer translator can create some strange results, but translation has always been more an art than a science. Of course, machine translation + human error can create even more bizarre results. (Can you order Wikipedia with garlic sauce?) (Jimmy Wales sent me this photo once upon a time, and we were perplexed how this came about)

    What’s not listed? Egg Rolls (though Crab Rangoons are), General Tso’s chicken (though General Tsuo’s tofu is, what happened to his chicken, did he go veg?), fortune cookies!

    The master list is incredibly helpful because, as it was built through consensus over many drafts, it conveys the optimal translations to bridge the gap between American and Chinese culinary sensibilities. This list will be useful not just in China, but for Chinese restaurants here in America for years to come.

    The list is revealing in what it says about what Americans get (or don’t get) about Chinese food. Reading the list, it’s clear that Americans get sweet and sour and spicy. Both are used as catch-alls for more complex descriptors of Chinese flavors.

    It is also telling which Chinese dishes have jumped the transliteration gap (“kung pao chicken” and “mapo tofu”) and which ones haven’t.

    The dishes that have received the most attention, of course, are the poetic or figurative dishes that got descriptive English names.

    There are a few dishes where the translation just smooths things over a bit.

    A lot of Chinese dishes use numbers (Chinese people really like numbers), so it’s intriguing when the translations choose to use the numbers, spell out the constituent ingredients or ignore the numbers completely.

    Clearly the Chinese have determined that the Americans like sweet and sour (one of the original Chicken McNuggets sauces), because it is used as the go-to translation in at least four different contexts.

    The menu also shows that Western beverages have clearly made it into the Chinese ingredient list.

    Dishes that jumped the transliteration divide and don’t need translations anymore:

    This serves to remind us that most of this wrangling doesn’t occur day to day in American-style Chinese food because the restaurateurs have brilliantly come up with descriptive, transparent and consistent names for so many of the dishes. So people know just what they are getting when they order “beef with broccoli,” “chicken with cashew nuts” or “sweet and sour pork.”

    In contrast, Indian “saag paneer,” Japanese “negima” and Korean “bulgogi” still seem appreciably impenetrable for the uninitiated.

    Lest Americans snicker at the “creative” names of the Chinese dish, the Chinese translation guide also turns things in reverse, giving standard Chinese names for items from Western menus.

    The drink names may seem a bit odd to someone Chinese:

    And there are some interesting translations of foods as well. Croissant is 牛角包, or “cow’s horn roll” or “roll shaped like a cow’s horn.”

    And while rumors are ever circulating in the United States that the Chinese eat cats, what are the Chinese to think of American culinary habits given that one of the all-American foods is literally translated into Chinese as a”hot” (热) + dog” (ç‹—)?

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

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