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Chinese Food Translations: Sweet, Sour and Downright Odd

Chinese Food Translations: Sweet, Sour and Downright Odd
By Jennifer 8. Lee
NY TIMES June 22,2008
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?)
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.
• 红烧狮子头: Stewed Pork Ball in Brown Sauce. It’s literally “braised lion’s head” but pork balls is certainly more descriptive.
• 全家福:Stewed Assorted Delicacies. Literally it means “Happy Family.”
• 清蒸童子鸡: Steamed Spring Chicken. This is the dish annoyingily oft referred to as steamed “chicken without a sexual life.” A translator with grace who was trying to keep it literal would probably use “virgin chicken” (more as in the sense of not having reached adulthood). “Chicken without a sexual life” is as deliberately awkward a translation as going up to a bartender and ordering a drink “margarita without a sexual life.”
• 夫妻肺片: Pork Lungs in Chili Sauce. This is the mentioned “husband and wife lung slices.” But “husband and wife” in Chinese often has a more colloquial sense of yin yang, complements, as does the term “鸳鸯,” which literally means “mandarin duck.” The term is a symbol of coupledom, as the duck often appears in pairs. The idea of couples, husbands and wives, is often used when describing two types of things mixed together.
• 蚂蚁上树: Sautéed Vermicelli with Spicy Minced Pork. Literally it is “ants climb up a tree,” a metaphorical name. Before people snicker, stop and think about “pigs in a blanket.”
There are a few dishes where the translation just smooths things over a bit.
• 怪味鸡丝: Special Flavored Shredded Chicken. It’s literally “strange flavored shredded chicken,” but “special” is apparently a more appetizing term than “strange.”
• 口水鸡: “Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce.” Literally, “saliva chicken,” or more colloquially “chicken which causes you to salivate.”
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.
• 三色中卷: Squid Rolls Stuffed with Bean, Ham and Egg Yolk. 三色中卷 means “three color roll,” and I have to admit I always wondered what the three things were in that dish and now I know.
• 地三鲜: Sautéed Potato, Green Pepper and Eggplant. Loosely translated as “three fresh things from the ground” and now we know which three things from the ground.
• 三彩牛肉丝: Stir-Fried Shredded Beef with Vegetables. Literally it’s “three color shredded beef,” but I guess they didn’t feel like enumerating what was contributing to the colors.
• 八宝饭: Eight Delicacies Rice. This is sometimes also literally translated as “eight treasures rice.” Listing which eight delicacies seems to be too much effort.
• 五香牛肉: Spicy Roast Beef. 五香 literally means “five fragrances,” and it is used over and over in Chinese cooking, so it’s interesting that they just went with “spicy.”
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.
• 糖醋排骨: Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs. The classic translation of sweet and sour is “sugar” (糖) and “vinegar” (醋).
• 珊瑚笋尖: Sweet and Sour Bamboo Shoots. Literally “conch shoots.”
• 松鼠桂鱼: Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish. Literally “squirrel mandarin fish.” Why squirrels became associated with sweet and sour is unclear to me.
• 素咕噜肉: Sweet and Sour Vegetables. “咕噜” doesn’t really have a literal meaning, but it describes a way of cooking that basically is batter-fried sweet and sour.
The menu also shows that Western beverages have clearly made it into the Chinese ingredient list.
• 可乐芸豆: French Beans in Coca-Cola
• 啤酒鸡: Stewed Chicken in Beer
• 可乐凤中翼: Pan-Fried Chicken Wings in Coca-Cola Sauce
Dishes that jumped the transliteration divide and don’t need translations anymore:
• 鱼香茄子: Yu-Shiang Eggplant (Sautéed with Spicy Garlic Sauce). “鱼香” is literally translated as “fish fragrant” but it doesn’t really mean that, it means “with garlic sauce,” which is an alternative translation.
• 麻婆豆腐: Mapo Tofu (Stir-Fried Tofu in Hot Sauce). This is the oft-mentioned “tofu made by a pockmarked old woman,” though this is tricky because “麻” can both mean “pock” or “numb” (as in the numbness you get when something is really spicy in Sichuan cuisine)
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:
• Screwdriver: 螺丝刀, literally “screwdriver,” as in the tool.
• Pink Lady: 红粉佳人, “pink” (红粉) + “pretty person” (佳人)
• Angel’s Kiss: 天使之吻, “the kiss of an angel.”
• Rusty Nail: 锈钉
• Black Russian: 黑俄罗斯, “Black” (黑)+ “Russia” (俄罗斯)
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” (狗)?