The delightfully named Fuchsia Dunlop, an East Asian specialist at the BBC World Service who writes about Chinese food (she has a book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper), has a column in the Financial Times about one of the many efforts China has made in preparing for the Olympics:

As the 2008 Olympic Games approached, the Beijing government embarked on a gargantuan task: to provide approved translations of all the names of dishes English-speaking visitors were likely to encounter on restaurant menus. They were keen, the official Chinese news agency said, to avoid “bizarre English translations” such as “chicken without sexual life” (used to describe a young chicken) and “husband and wife’s lung slice” (a Sichuanese street snack). The agency added, with an unusual burst of humour, that “the images they conjured up were not, one could say, appetising”….

Drawing up accurate translations for even a fraction of Chinese dishes would be a daunting endeavour (Sichuan province alone lays claim to 5,000 different dishes). And the language of Chinese cuisine presents particular challenges. Chinese chefs use a vast vocabulary of terms to describe their cooking methods, many of which are untranslatable. Take, for example, liu, which means to pre-cook pieces of food in oil or water and then marry them with a sauce that has been prepared separately: how to describe this succinctly in English? Even a method like stir-frying has many variations, such as basic stir-frying (chao), fast stir-frying over a high flame (bao), and stir-frying in a dry wok (gan bian). When I trained as a chef in Sichuan province, I had to learn a canon of 56 different cooking methods, and that was just the beginning of my apprenticeship in Chinese cuisine. Translating such a richness of culinary technique into menu shorthand is no easy matter.

Moreover, many types of food have no English-language equivalent. Think of “dumpling”, a blanket term used for all kinds of Chinese snacks, from jiao zi (boiled semi-circular dumplings), to shao mai (steamed dumplings shaped like money bags) and bao (steamed dumplings with twirly tops). And how to translate fen, which can mean powder, meal, noodles, or strips of starch jelly? When taking notes in Chinese kitchens, I find myself jotting in Chinese characters simply because there is no other way of recording precisely what I see, smell and taste….

The final result of the Beijing government’s endeavours is a 170-page book entitled Chinese Menu in English Version. Its suggested translations for more than 2,000 dishes represent a solid achievement, and a great leap forward for linguistically challenged Chinese restaurateurs. The two dozen translators have stuck to their guns in holding on to several useful Chinese terms, like jiaozi for boiled dumplings, tangyuan for glutinous riceballs, and shaomai for those money-bag steamed dumplings. They have avoided some notorious foodstuffs (such as dog), but no one could accuse them of sanitising their menu, because they have included challenging dishes such as steamed pig’s brains and sautéed chicken gizzards.

Along the way she mentions dishes I love well, like mapo doufu and dan dan mian (both Sichuanese). And what I wouldn’t give for two dozen steamed dumplings from the Dongmen Jiaozi Wang in Taipei, on which I used to pig out thirty years ago! But that brings me to a quibble: she defines jiaozi as “boiled dumplings,” but they can be prepared several ways; the boiled ones are shui jiao (水餃, “water dumplings”), but the steamed ones I love are zheng jiao (蒸餃). (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Looks like someone has typed Chinese Menu in English Version in here (and the 9 other pages next to it).

  2. But the list has both jiaozi and steamed jiaozi (your zheng jiao), and a couple of others too. Simplified characters, of course.
    Fuchsia Dunlop is great. The book you refer to is more autobiographical. She has also written cookbooks for Sichuan and Hunan food – she was the only woman on a course in Sichuan training as a chef.

  3. Crown, A. J. P. says

    It will be be a piece of cake for foreign friends to order the Chinese foods that they want to eat from now on !!!

  4. I’m not particularly culinarically adventurous, but it seems to me that they’ve not really solved the problem.
    Sichuan may have 79 different words for dumbling, but do the hungry anglophone really care?

  5. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Hell, yes. You’re missing so much, Sili. Just imagine if someone said to you ‘how many books do you really need?’ If you’re not an adventurous eater you should move some place where they have cheap delicious foreign foodstuffs and restaurants, Skandinavia is the worst place to be for that.

  6. Crown, A. J. P. says

    What was “burnt lion’s head” a mistranslation of, do you think?

  7. I would definitely recommend her cookbooks. I haven’t used them as much as I would like (my wife has a low threshold for heat, and many [but not all] of the recipes are hot or use the numbing Sichuan pepper), but everything has turned out well.

  8. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Actually a better analogy would be to music because it’s more visceral: do you really need 79 different cds? If you’ve heard one bit of music you’ve heard them all.
    And speaking of Nietzsche, Nietzsche in Turin: The End of the Future, by Lesley Chamberlain is an excellent, really enjoyable, if that’s an acceptable word in the circumstances, study of the end of his life, his last year before his brain stopped. She’s a good wrier, but I’ve never met anyone who has heard of her. She also writes about Russia and food, and she’s married to the Czech ambassador in London, so there ought to be someone here who knows of her. Now you’re all going to say ‘Oh, her she’s really stupid,’ but you won’t because you’re all too well-mannered. The only other book I’ve read about him was Rudi Schafranski’s Philosophical Biography, which wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I’m thinking of Nietzsche partly because I started reading John book and partly because Nietzsche was a big fan of shao mai steamed dumplings…

  9. What was “burnt lion’s head” a mistranslation of, do you think?
    红烧狮子头 Stewed Pork Ball in Brown Sauce
    hong2shao1 shi1zi0tou2, which the table at the end of her article gives as “Red-braised lion’s heads.” “Red Burned Lion Head” seems to actually be the literal variation with the most Google hits.
    It’s really only the 烧 (trad. 燒) that has to decide within the larger semantic space of ‘burn; cook; stew; roast; bake; roast; braise; boil; heat; run a fever; over fertilize’.
    She does not include it in the paragraph on cooking method technical terms, but I think there is means ‘stew after frying’ or ‘fry after stewing’. In other words, ‘cook a lot’. The rest is a metaphor, which could arguably stay literal.

  10. I’ve been told to get rid of some of my books, actually, and I do indeed balk at the idea.
    Having 79 different words for “dumbling” and factorially more varieties of dumbling is indeed a good thing.
    The question is whether trying to preserve this mulitidinousness in translating is really helpful? If you are indeed a gourmet with an insatiable curiousity for food and languages, you’ll likely ask the waiter or even chef about the different dishes. But if one is a plain old, boring tourist, rushing from one site to another, I doubt one’d really appreciate the finer intricasies of the difference between “halfmoonshaped” dumblings and “moneybag” dumblings. Just call them just that, and 95% of the customers will be happy.

  11. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Yes. I like the metaphors, but they’re where the translation problems are, when you can’t tell where metaphor ends and mistranslation begins.
    … a vast vocabulary of terms to describe their cooking methods, many of which are untranslatable. Take, for example, liu, which means to pre-cook pieces of food in oil or water and then marry them with a sauce that has been prepared separately: how to describe this succinctly in English..
    This description would cover, for example, potato salad. What’s the problem? It’s main ingredient + sauce name.

  12. John Emerson says

    It’s a generic name for things of that type, I think.

  13. That name is enough to make me rethink my decision not to have kids.
    I could name the kid Fuchsia? Hmm…

  14. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Don’t name him Fuchsia. Imagine him being paged at Heathrow in twenty years time. It’s a terrible pronunciation problem: in Fngland it’s F-yew-sha, but in Italy and Norway, and probably other places, it’s Fux-ia.
    Now someone’s going to tell me that the Sumerians had the only proper pronunciation, and that was…

  15. while i wholly understand the translation issue, i pretty much consistently enjoy every meal a little more based simply on having to translate what i’m eating. fish smell meat silk (which in nanjing tends to be something like shredded sweet & sour bamboo with a dash of pork) is still a big favourite, but i think that’s just because i’ve not personally seen “chicken without a sex life”.
    zhengjiao ftw.

  16. Perhaps it is not my duty to increase the population of Fuchsias after all.

  17. The delightfully named Fuchsia Dunlop…

    Yes, a great name. In The Wire two detectives have to invent an informant for some bogus paperwork and they name him Fuzzy Dunlop.

    Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  18. There is an Australian heiress named Primrose Dunlop, and I thought that this Fuchsia could be her sister, but it seems not. Poor Primrose (AKA Pitty-Pat), she was supposed to marry a Venetian prince who was also a QANTAS flight attendant, but he ran away with the best man instead.

  19. mollymooly says

    I don’t think dumpling:book or dumpling:CD are good analogies. Better would be food:book or music:book, and then dumpling:gothic-horror or dumpling:jazz-fusion. If you like jazz-fusion, you probably need 79 different words or phrases to subcategorize it. If it all sounds the same to you, you don’t.

  20. mollymooly says

    “food:book or food:CD”, obviously.

  21. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Gothic horror? What are you, some kind of anorexic?
    I think you must mean,
    dumpling:children’s book,
    shao mai:Beatrix Potter,
    money bags:roly-poly pudding.

  22. David Marjanović says

    It will be be a piece of cake for foreign friends to order the Chinese foods that they want to eat from now on !!!

    If they can pronounce it in a recognizable fashion. Mwahah.

  23. John Cowan says

    See also Mark Rosenfelder’s 張艶梅, aka Fuschia [sic] Chang.

  24. John Cowan: wow, that’s an obscure reference, even for Mark’s website. TANK GIRL!!!

Speak Your Mind