Or let me try to use a better title: As a foreigner, are you able to understand the English translation of Chinese dishes in China?
To Read English Menu in U.S. is Hard, but Chinese Menus are Harder
The biggest headache for me is to order dishes in U.S. I think I understand English, and can speak some English, until I am presented an English menu. I believe the most effective way to determine whether someone has lived in a foreign country or not is a menu test. The names of vegetables or sauces are the most basic terms in daily life, but can be very hard terms for a language learner (when they learn it out of the daily life context). That is how I feel in U.S. and Australia.
For visitors or expats in China, the situation is completely the same, and even worse. The translation of Chinese dishes does not help too much because by nature, it is not easy to translate the Chinese dishes to English just by direct or word-to-word translation, not to mention the Chinese dish names are not descriptive itself.
The Key Difference in Chinese and English Dish Names
There are key differences between the dish names of Chinese and English. The English names basically list what’s in the dish (the ingredients) and how it was cooked. The challenge of understanding English menus is to understand the name of the limited amount of vegetables, fruits and sauces names.
The Chinese dish names, in contrast, are completely irrelevant from the ingredients. Cooks tend to think of a very short and beautiful name for the dishes. Typical Chinese dish names are only four characters long, and when you read it, it sounds like a short poem. To name or to guess what the name stands for is an interesting game for cooks and diners.
Here are my favorite examples of Chinese dish names. Guess what it is from the names.
- Lion Head. Is it the head of lions? No. It is big meat ball cooked in Hangzhou. One of my favorite. Why they name it this way? I have no idea. It is just named hundreds of years ago and people are still using this name.
- Ants Climbing Trees. This is also a popular dish in China. We order this almost every time we go out. It is also translated as “Sautéed Vermicelli with Spicy Minced Pork”. Did you see the connections? I didn’t.
Xiaojie Wang sent me some other direct translations that is so funny. Here you are:
- Slobbering chicken. Chinese: 口水鸡 More official translation: Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce
- Tiger Dish. Chinese: 老虎菜 English: No idea at all. What is that?
- beancurd made by a pockmarked woman. Chinese: 麻婆豆腐 English: Mapo Tofu (Stir-Fried Tofu in Hot Sauce)
- Rolling Donkey. Chinese: 驴打滚. English: Glutinous Rice Rolls with Sweet Bean Flour
- There are very ridiculous: Chicken without Sexual Life. Chinese: 童子鸡 English: Spring Chicken
These are the traditional dishes with relative common names. In some restaurants, they really tried hard to find new names for old dishes, or their new inventions. That can be even more wired for foreigners.
You see. From the name, you really have no idea about what it is, and some direct or bad translation makes it even hard to understand.
Even with good and direct translation, it is so hard to guess. Believe me. It is not only for foreigners. I also have hard to understand what it is about. It is not rare that I ask the waiter what a dish really is.
Now many restaurants provide English menus, and the translation is really bad. They did the translation just by characters (not by meanings), and it turned out to be seriously wrong.
For example, “Griddle Cook” is common way to cook a dish, and it can be mistakenly translated to “fuck” if they don’t know English well. Look at this menu, and you will be really surprised by what the dish names are.
See? Don’t be surprised to see a translation like this. They really didn’t mean rude – they just want to communicate about what they are going serve you – in a wrong way.
Survey: What is Your Experience?
Reporter Miss. Wang Xiaojie asked me to do a simple survey on my blog for my foreigner readers: What is your experience with Chinese menus? Can you read it? If you can, how did you figure out what it means? If you cannot, what do you think that can help you?
Please post comment directly understand this post. Thanks.
P.S. Xiaojie will collect the response from this post and feature the interesting replies in the next week’s International Herald Leader.
P.S. 2 Why there are so many f*** word in the menu?
There are just 2000-3000 frequently used Chinese words, and there are so many meanings in the world, so every single character means a lot of different things. For example, the Chinese character 干 in the menu means a lot of different things. To name a few:
the trunk of a tree
the main part
[Informal] to do; to work
to fight on
[Literary] to offend
to interfere in
to be involved in
to drain till empty
You can see, there are some. It can also be translated to the f*** word. The menu maker may randomly pick a translation and print it there.