Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lost in Mistranslation

Recently, a friend posted the following picture up on his Facebook page:

Interesting Taiwanese Milk Tea flavours
It took me a few seconds.  So "Red Bean" is incorrectly spelt as "Red Been", pretty standard stuff... oh wait, WHAT?  "Embryo Flavor"?!?!?!

Upon further research, I discovered that 胚芽奶茶 (pēi yá nǎi​ chá) is probably barley milk tea, though I have also seen "wheat" or "malt" printed on other menus.  胚芽 (pēi yá) translates to "embryo" or "germ" according to one online dictionary, so for instance 小麥胚芽 (xiǎo ​mài​ pēi​ yá) is wheat germ and 胚芽米 (pēi yá mǐ) is semi-polished rice, i.e. rice minus the husk, but including the germ.  It's not as daring as you think to take a sip of this drink!

This confusion reminded me of the menu I saw at a Chinese restaurant on Dominion Road.  We first went to 羊先生 (which we shall translate as "Mr. Yang's") because the English part of the sign displayed "steamboat", and we were looking for a steamboat (a.k.a. hot pot) restaurant in the area.  Well, there was no steamboat in sight.  Instead, we found a menu which looked like this:

Page out of the menu at Mr. Yang's
It might be difficult to see this in the picture, but one dish on offer was "牛肉刀削面 Beef knife bevel" which is actually knife-shaved noodles (sliced into strips), a Shanxi specialty.  In the following documentary (from 1:20), a young man demonstrates the slicing of noodles while balanced on a unicycle, and he manages to flick the pieces of dough from his head into a pot of boiling water too!

Another item you can get at Mr. Yang's is "上汤菜心 On the soup vegetable heart".  You could be easily excused for not knowing that this is choy sum served in broth.

Yet another offering which flummoxed us was "清炒荷兰豆(豆干/蒜茸/腊肉) Fries without additional ingredients the peas (dried beans/garlic deer velvet/cured meat)".  Is this beans or peas?  And could you really get it with deer velvet (surely not for the price of $16)?  For your peace of mind, although New Zealand is a major exporter of deer velvet, 蒜茸 (suàn róng) is actually simply garlic, crushed.  茸 (róng) on its own means something like "soft" or "fluffy", which I suppose is the texture of crushed garlic.  Actual deer velvet used in traditional Chinese medicine would be 鹿茸 (lù​ róng).  What this dish turns out to be is plain fried snowpeas, optionally with dried bean curd (a firm tofu), crushed garlic, or preserved meat.  Phew!

By the way, "回锅肉包子 Recooks the meat dumpling" is a steamed bun filled with twice cooked pork, and "鸡蛋韭菜盒子 Egg fragrant-flowered garlic box" is a savoury pancake pocket filled with egg and garlic chives (pictured in the bottom right of the menu page above).

They actually did pretty well with some of the translations too.  For instance, "鱼香茄子煲 Eggplant with chilil" is often literally given as "fish fragrant eggplant" in other restaurants, and for years I thought there was actually some kind of fish or fish sauce in it.  In fact, there is traditionally no fish at all in this dish.  It is so called because the sauce (made with chilli bean paste, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and Chinese black vinegar) is also frequently used to cook fish in Sichuan cuisine.

Engrish.com has a great collection of dubious menu (and other) translations.  What other oddities have you come across?  Was it just funny, or did you actually think you were eating something completely different?

[Added  15 February 2012:

Come to think of it, English is full of traps for the language learner too.  Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, and black forest cake and black pudding are two very different things.  I hadn't heard of bubble and squeak until recently and had no idea what it was.  You wouldn't want to translate "hot dog" or "toad in the hole" word for word either.  Oh, and don't forget the confusion when someone from outside NZ/Australia is invited to "bring a plate".


  1. Haha, true. Welsh rarebit (pronounced rabbit) doesn't sound as rude, but I kept thinking it was a meaty dish too.


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