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The Art of Translating Chinese Menus

Translating Chinese menus into English is part science, part poetry but often all Chinglish


The Art of Translating Chinese Menus

Translating Chinese menus into English is part science, part poetry but often all Chinglish


“Four Glad Meat Balls,” “Pork Flower,” “Red Burned Lion Head” and “Chicken without Sex” – these are just some of the funky names of Chinese dishes you may have stumbled across when consulting an English menu. Some will prove entirely incomprehensible while others will simply put you off your food, but whatever the result, poor translations are the cause.

Recently, the Beijing Foreign Affairs Office published a book with the awesomely catch title “Enjoy Culinary Delights: A Chinese Menu in English” (《美食译苑——中文菜单英文译法》), which offers an official translation of the names of 2,158 Chinese dishes.

This official version cuts through the obfuscation to reveal exactly what the above four dishes are: “Braised Pork Balls in Gravy” (四喜丸子), “Sautéed Pig Kidney” (火爆腰花), “Braised Pork Ball in Brown Sauce” (红烧狮子头) and “Spring Chicken”(童子鸡).

But where’s the romance in that? Many experienced translators agree that the two biggest challenges in Chinese-to-English translation are ancient Chinese poems and the names of Chinese dishes. It’s almost impossible to convey in English the rich aesthetic images and historical allusions contained within the names of Chinese dishes, and straight translations are the poorer for eliding these cultural references.

Below are a few translation principles the experts from the foreign affairs office adhere to when translating Chinese dishes:

Principle 1: Base the wording on the ingredients involved. For example, Chinese Mushrooms with Pine Nuts (松仁香菇) or Bitter Melon in Plum Sauce (冰梅凉瓜)

Principle 2: Reference the cooking method: Tossed Black and White Fungus (拌双耳), Sautéed Spicy Beef and Green Peas (豌豆辣牛肉) or Tossed Clear Noodles with Chili Sauce (川北凉粉)

Principle 3: Give a feel for how the dish looks or tastes: Rabbit-Shaped Mantou (玉兔馒头) or Crispy Chicken (脆皮鸡)

Principle 4: Reference the person who invented the dish or where it originated: Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐), Cantonese Dim Sum (广东点心), Spicy Chicken, Sichuan Style (四川辣子鸡), or Noodles with Soy Bean Paste, Beijing Style (北京炸酱面)

Even with these guidelines things can still go awry. Mapo Tofu (sautéed tofu in hot and spicy sauce, a popular Chinese dish from Sichuan Province) was originally translated as “tofu made by a woman with freckles.” Though the translation sounds a little off, it does indeed reference the origin of the dish. Back in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the female cook at a Chengdu eatery made such special tofu it made her and her store famous. Since she had freckles on her face (or was a mapo, which means a woman with freckles), the tofu dish took its name from her.

Principle 5: retain the pinyin name for Chinese specialties: instead of translating jiaozi generally as dumplings, the pinyin is used. Other examples are baozi (steamed buns with stuffing) and mantou (steamed buns without stuffing).

Dishes that defy reference by any of the above principles should also be named in pinyin, and embellished with a brief explanation in English. One of them is fotiaoqiang (佛跳墙, literally, the Buddha jumps over the wall, a famous Fujian Province dish of steamed abalone with shark’s fin and fish maw in broth). The dish is acclaimed for its delicious aroma which, as a line from a famous poem recounts, would make even Buddha jump over the wall to grab a taste if he smelled it. Another example is lǘdagunr (驴打滚儿, the donkey rolls about in the mud), a traditional Beijing snack made of steamed glutinous millet flour stuffed with red bean paste. The pastry is rolled in the soybean powder before it is ready to serve, just like a donkey might roll about on the floor to scratch his back.

To view a full version of the complete Chinese menu in English, click here.

While you’re at it, why not tell or show us the most hilarious translation of a Chinese dish you’ve ever seen? Or even the name of a dish you just can’t figure out the meaning of? Below, our webmaster Keoni Everington get’s things started with a few snaps of some Chinglish classics…

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And never use an online translator!