Foreigners in Shanghai discuss silly English names for Chinese food

By Du Qiongfang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/12 19:03:40

Lost in mistranslation

As the Chinese New Year approaches, foreigners who are staying in China during the holiday week are eager to visit new places and try new Chinese food. Nevertheless, trying new dishes without any idea about what they are actually eating can be an adventure for foreigners in China. The Global Times recently interviewed some expats in Shanghai about the absurd and silly English mistranslations they have come across in China.

Photo: VCG


"I saw once a dish called 'Buddha jumping above a wall.' And that was kind of surprising to me because I had no idea what I was going to eat right then. I didn't think that I was going to eat a god or something. That was kind of weird," German student Julian shared with the Global Times.

"I also saw once something written down called 'ants climbing up a tree.' And that was also kind of confusing to me." But Julian actually tried the dish and found it was very delicious.

Thirty-eight-year-old Peter from Australia is a businessman who often goes on business trips between Australia and China every month for a couple of weeks. He has seen some silly English translations in Shanghai, but not many.

"Like something that wouldn't make sense at all, maybe sometimes, not very often," said Peter, who cannot roughly guess their meaning.

Thirty-year-old Ahmed Saad from Egypt has been working as a teacher in Shanghai for two years. He sometimes sees mistranslations in Chinese restaurants, like for seafood such as shrimp, fish, squid and eel.

As a student in Shanghai, Juliet Helling said that usually she has a rough idea what the mistranslations mean. But because Chinese have many words that sound similar, "you can sometimes guess it, and sometimes you can't," Helling said.

"If you have the chance to ask somebody, I would ask if it's really translated like that, or you just use different translating devices, like Microsoft Translator or WeChat, because they will translate differently."

"So I like doing both just to make sure that it's the right translation of what I am reading, because it can make a big difference," Helling said.

Julian agreed that sometimes it is really hard to get a rough idea, especially when it's about meat. "You get a wrong idea what you are going to receive," Julian said. Egyptian engineer Ramy Hamed, 34, uses the menu photos to guess. "But it's hard to guess sometimes," Hamed said.

Photo: VCG

Other Asian countries

Of course, it is not only in China that expats come across mistranslations. It is the same everywhere else in the world, especially in Asian countries.

"In Tokyo, they had some really weird translations. Even when I asked them specifically what does that mean, they couldn't give me a correct idea of what they actually wanted to sell me at this point," Julian said.

"Also in Thailand, especially in tourist places, they put something in a computer translator. So quite often it was a wild guess. You have no idea what you are actually getting," Julian said.

Peter sees mistranslations in other countries all the time. "Something with the wrong explanation of the dish, saying it's beef, but it's pork, in Thailand," Peter said.

Saad also saw mistranslations in other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam and he can usually roughly guess their meaning.

Hamed has been to other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Cambodia. Compared with Shanghai, he thinks Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, has better English translations.

Correcting in public

But most expats said they wouldn't correct Chinese people's mistranslations. "Usually not, because my Chinese isn't good enough to explain the translation. So usually I just don't say anything. Because I couldn't explain to them that is wrong," Helling said.

Julian said if he sees Chinese people making a big mistake, then he will correct them. "Otherwise, when it's in a bigger group or something, I don't want to lose someone's face. I don't want to blame them in public. I think that's rude. That's why I try to not correct them at this point," Julian said.

When hearing mistranslations when communicating with Chinese people, Peter won't correct them, but "just laugh at it."

Saad said correcting them or not depends on the people. "I often try to avoid correcting people, because it's not a gentle way," Saad said. 

Julian suggested that shop owners should check the menus themselves. But Peter thinks it depends whether the mistranslation should be corrected or not. "If the translation is funny and makes sense in the Western world, that's fine. But sometimes, it's kinda like funny in the Chinese language but it won't make sense in English, you just need to fix it," Peter said.

Hamed suggested that they just need to give it to someone who can review and correct it. "So you can understand both languages like Chinese and English. You can get a better translation before just printing the menu," Hamed said.

Ahmed Saad




Ramy Hamed


Julian (left) and Juliet Helling Photos: Yang Hui/GT



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