The English Menu

June 18th, 2008

I don’t know, maybe because I spent the afternoon downloading Firefox 3 and AVG 8.0 onto the office computer, and then struggling to get the language bar to reappear, but when I saw the headline, I thought it had something to do with computers…. But no, food. 新京报/The Beijing News’ Zuo Lin reports that the new, official English menu for restaurants is out:


Chinese-English menu translation has “come out of the oven”


Restaurants of three or more stars can collect it from the Beijing Municipal Tourism Bureau, includes standard translations for over 2000 kinds of food.

 Now, if I’m reading it right, this standard translation should be picked up by the 20th, but it’s not compulsory, just recommended…. whatever. All I’m interested in is how they’ve gone about translating things. I mean, we’ve all seen hillariously inappropriate translations in restaurants, and that needs to be cleaned up, but the amount of trouble my students and Chinese friends and colleagues have gotten themselves into trying to talk about their meal….. For one thing (and this is one of my little hobby horses), 白酒 is not white wine. And what I always tell my students is…. just use the bloody Chinese name. It doesn’t have an English name. There does not need to be an English word for everything, and English, like all languages, including Chinese, is more than capable of adapting a foreign term to cover a gap in its vocabulary. Anyway:

据介 绍,《中文菜单英文译法》中的大部分中文菜名,翻译方法分为几种,分别以主料、烹饪方法、形状或口感为主,此外,为了体现中国传统餐饮文化,饺子、包子这 些传统食物,直接以汉语拼音命名或音译,而一些具有中国特色且被外国人接受的菜名,使用地方语言拼写或音译拼写,如豆腐翻成Tofu,馄饨翻成 Wonton,宫保鸡丁直接就是Kung Pao Chicken。

According to reports, most of the Chinese dish names in the Chinese menu English translation method are translated according to several methods, with the main ones being the main ingredients, style of cooking, shape, and texture. Apart from this,  in order to reflect China’s traditional food and drink culture, tradtional foods such as jiaozi and baozi are named directly in Hanyu Pinyin or transliterated, and those Chinese foods whose names have been accepted by foreigners use the spelling in their local language or are transliterated, such as tofu, wonton or kung pao chicken.

Alright, so I hashed the translation as usual, but…. A little commonsense seems to have prevailed. See, here’s what I tell my students:

  1. If it’s a Chinese version of something eaten in many different countries, it’ll have an English name, for example: Rice; noodles; dumplings (but remember there are several Chinese foods that could be called ‘dumplings’).
  2. If it exists only in China, chances are it has only a Chinese name, so, for crying out loud, just tell me what you ate- in Chinese. There are, of course, exceptions (kung pao chicken, for example), but in general, 鱼香肉丝 is just yǔxiàngròusī, so get over it.
  3. 白酒 is just báijiǔ. ‘White wine’, like anything named ‘wine’ (unless it bears some kind of qualifier, e.g. ‘greengage wine’) is made from fermented grape juice and its alcohol content is generally in the 12 to 14% by volume range. ‘Vodka’ is a Russian word, ‘Soju’ is Korean, and ‘Sake’ is Japanese. We use these foreign words in English to denote these drinks because they are Russian, Korean and Japanese. Similarly, ‘brandy’ comes from the German ‘Branntwein’, and whisk(e)y comes from something unpronounceable and unspellable- a Gaelic word, just to make things clear. And no, don’t say ‘alcohol’- that just means 酒, and if you offer me alcohol, I’ll expect a choice between some range of beers, wines and spirits. And ‘white alcohol’ or ‘white spirits’ is liable to leave me thinking I somehow stumbled through a wormhole into the direst stereotype of post-Soviet Siberia Hollywood could dream up. So, really: 白酒 is just báijiǔ.

Or, in other words, I’m glad to see the Municipal Tourism Bureau has grown the balls to say: Well, these are several types dumplings with Chinese characteristics, they’re not like any Italian or Russian or whatever version, so let’s just stick with jiaozi and baozi. And hey, foreigners stopped saying ‘beancurd’ and adapted the word ‘tofu’ decades ago, so let’s just run with that- it makes a lot more sense, after all.

Still, all I have to go on is this very short report in TBN. It looks good, but I’d really have to see the official document itself or the newly-minted menus of those restaurants that take up the recommendation to make any kind of realistic judgement on this. And three stars or above? That’s an awful lot of local holes-in-the-wall going without protection….. There’s going to be no shortage of photos of funny menus appearing on Flickr from August onwards….


9 Responses to “The English Menu”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Sounds like good advice to me!

  2. wangbo Says:

    Advice born of years of baijiu-fuelled confusion- and that’s before the bottle was even on the table- and seeing my students suddenly get all uncomfortable and start giggling because they don’t know the English word for the food they want to tell me about- and the usually don’t know the English word because there isn’t one. But most of the time, it’s in one ear and out the other and the next time the talk turns to food and drink we’re right back to square one.

    But thanks!

  3. Brendan Says:

    Whisky: from English ‘usquebaugh,’ which was originally from the Irish ‘uisce beatha’ (“ishkeh baha”), “water of life.” I assume that this was just a calque into Irish of ‘aqua vitae.’

    I have to say, I will miss the old bad menus. Chinglish doesn’t do much for me, but I did enjoy seeing Sichuan menus advertising “saliva chicken” and “husband and wife lung slices.”

  4. wangbo Says:

    Three-stars and above, Brendan. That means there’s going to be plenty of cheap places with entertaining menus.

    And I see I was right in describing whisky’s origins as being unpronounceable and unspellable.

  5. Arctosia Says:

    Generally agree.

    I edited some Chinese cuisine articles in English wikipedia very very long time ago. Most people follow two rules(not all agree, though):

    1) use the most well-known name or the name that is understandable to english speakers. i.e. Peking duck, not Beijing Kaoya.

    2)consistency. This is still quite troublesome. Surprise or not, quite a lot of people don’t know doufu and tofu are actually the same thing. Just checked Wikipedia again, 豆腐 is tofu, but 麻婆豆腐 is named as “mapo doufu”.

    Whether to use pinyin or English words(or mix of both) really doesn’t matter. As long as all of us follow the same naming rule, and that rule doesn’t create confusion or ridiculous names like “very expensive sun”(贵阳),which just happened recently, then every thing should be just fine.

  6. Arctosia Says:

    BTW, “husband and wife lung slices” is one of my favorite Sichuan cuisine – as long as they still use beef rather than husband and wife meat to make it:)

  7. wangbo Says:

    I think the biggest problem with consistency is that a lot of Chinese people assume that all Chinese words must have an English equivalent and that no foreigner could possibly have ever heard of anything Chinese, hence we get Beijing Kaoya or Beijing Toast Duck (yes, I’ve heard that one many times) or Peking Duck. What I liked about this new translation standard is that it does acknowledge that many Chinese foods have become common outside China, hence tofu, kungpao chicken, and Peking duck. I also like that it stands up and says, dammit, jiaozi are jiaozi and baozi are baozi. Hopefully this does lead to more consistency in restaurants and less silliness in my classroom.

  8. Pat Says:

    I remember having to make sure that the waiter brought a grape based liquid when he heard ‘white wine’ from a friend who was ordering. He was going to bring baijiu.

    And this was at a popular foreigner patronized restaurant in Xintiandi in Shanghai.

  9. wangbo Says:

    Oh dear. I wonder, was that a mistranslation by your friend, or a very confused waiter? I mean, precious few foreigners enjoy baijiu.