English Translation of Chinese Dish Names
With the opening-up and reform policy in China, Shanghai, as one of the cosmopolitan cities in China, has attracted a great number of foreign tourists, many of whom are interested in Chinese culture, especially Chinese food. However, poor translations of the names of Chinese dishes usually give those visitors a bad impression. It is reported that a Chinese dish named si xi wan zi (四喜丸子) was translated as "Four Happy Meatballs" in English. Such a translation may shock foreign guests. The current study collected a great number of menus from a range of different Chinese restaurants (from small to big ones). The names of the dishes in these menus have been analyzed and the problems with the translation have been identified. An interview with a native English speaker has been conducted to learn her experience with the inappropriate translation of the names of Chinese dishes. Based on the analysis, some translating strategies and criteria for dish name translation have been proposed.
Chinese dish names, English translation, criteria, case study.
With the opening-up and reform policy in China, Shanghai, as one of the cosmopolitan cities, has attracted a great number of foreign tourists, many of whom are interested in Chinese culture, especially Chinese food. However, it is a big concern that poor translations of the names of Chinese dishes give those visitors a bad impression. What is worse, it is reported that few restaurants provide English menus such that foreign visitors feel embarrassed when they order a certain dish. Before long Huang Pu District government, Shanghai, required all the restaurants to prepare translated menus for foreign customers' convenience and improve their service levels (Zhang 2009). On the one hand, many restaurants are unaware of the importance of translated menus. On the other hand, many translated menus are not accurate or are even incorrect. It is reported that a Chinese dish named四喜丸子 (Si Xi Wan Zi) was translated as "Four Happy Meatballs" into English. This translation is for sure to shock foreign visitors. Therefore, this paper aims to explore into English translation of Chinese dish names, particularly focusing on a native English speaker's understanding of the translation of Chinese dish names collected from local restaurants. It discusses the features of Chinese dish names, examines some problems in their English translation, and proposes possible solutions.
Dish name translation is a special domain of translation, as it involves dealing with linguistic, cultural, and social features in both languages. In this section, features of Chinese dish names are presented in the beginning. Then the functional equivalence theory is invoked as the theoretical basis for the study and a few previous studies concerning dish name translation are discussed.
Therefore, some factors have to be taken into consideration due to the special genre of dish name translation. As Newmark (1988: 41) points out: "The first factor in all evocative texts is the relationship between the writer and the readership. The second factor is that these texts must be written in a language that is immediately comprehensible to the readership." However, this effort can be achieved only through the provision of sufficient background information. According to Newmark (1988), both informative text and evocative text belong to communicative translation, while the expressive text belongs to semantic translation. In his opinion communicative translation attempts to render the exact contextual meaning of the original text in such a way that both content and language are readily acceptable and comprehensible to the readership (Newmark 1988: 48-49).
Translation of Chinese dish name is complicated. The translator should attempt to produce the same effect on the target language readers as is produced by the original on the source language readers. Chinese readers seldom have difficulty in understanding the original because they share the same cultural background with the writer. However, cultural discrepancies will hinder foreign readers from understanding such texts properly. Therefore translators should adopt an appropriate method to adjust the version to help readers comprehend the texts. Otherwise, they will find the translation requiring so much effort to understand that they are likely to stop reading, unless they are very highly motivated (Jin and Nida 1984: 102). Moreover, knowing the culture of Chinese food can help people understand the meaning of the names of Chinese dishes and make it easier to be translated. Without this knowledge, the dishes might be translated incorrectly, which will confuse or even misguide people. The understanding of Chinese dishes, their features, cooking methods, raw materials used, and especially the three elements of the dishes, that is, color, aroma, and flavor, is very important for Chinese dish name translation.
Corresponding with the features of Chinese dish name, Nida's functional equivalence theory is invoked as the theoretic basis for explaining English translation of Chinese dish names. According to Nida (2001), no translation is ever completely equivalent. A number of different translations can in fact represent varying degrees of equivalence. This means that equivalence cannot be understood in its mathematical meaning of identity, but only in terms of proximity, i.e. on the basis of degrees of closeness to functional identity (He 2010: 131). Functional equivalence implies a different degree of adequacy from minimal to maximal effectiveness on the basis of both cognitive and experiential factors. A minimal, realistic definition of functional equivalence means that the readers of a translated text share almost the similar understanding of the source text with the original readers. Anything less than this degree of equivalence is unacceptable. A maximal definition means the readers of a translated text have the same comprehension as the original readers do. (Nida 2001: 87). The maximal definition implies a high degree of language-culture correspondence between the source language and the target language (He 2010: 131).
Translating involves four major parameters (among many others): the source text, the translator, the reader, and the target text to be produced, each usually resolving into many, even inexhaustible, factors or variables that may exercise different effects on the act of translating (Nida 2001:131). To be specific, the source text, for example, demands adequate consideration of its style, language, time of being written, the SL (source language) culture and so on, while the target text to be produced draws the translator's attention to its language, the TL (target language) culture and the like; the translator has his or her particular purpose and psychology, a unique and habitual style of writing and other characteristics that vary from person to person, while the reader may be classified into several types according to different scales such as the reader's education level, sex, and age (Nida 2001: 117). Then the discussion about the translation mainly focuses on the source language and culture vs. the target language and culture. As the language is the carrier of the culture and the language more or less controls the way people think, the way of talking can tell us many things such as their social status, education background, place of residence, gender, etc. (Liu 1999). Translating, i.e., rendering from one language into another, is confronting the problem, or rather, the aim or goal, of restoring the source cultural reality embodied in the source language, in the target language that usually, if not always, symbolizes the cultural reality specific to the target language. In other words, the target language is used to express the cultural reality that is specific to the source language, which explains why the process of translating is so complex and tortuous (Tan 1999).
Because dynamic equivalence eschews strict adherence to the original text in favor of a more natural rendering in the target language, it is sometimes used when the readability of the translation is more important than the preservation of the original wording. Thus, a dish name might be translated with greater use of dynamic equivalence so that it may read well. Completely unambiguous formal translation of larger works is more goal than reality, if only because one language may contain a word for a concept which has no direct equivalence in another language (Nida 2001). In such cases a more dynamic translation may be used or a neologism may be created in the target language to represent the concept. The more the source language differs from the target language, the more difficult it may be to understand a literal translation. On the other hand, formal equivalence can sometimes allow readers familiar with the source language to see how meaning was expressed in the original text, preserving untranslated idioms, rhetorical devices, and diction (Nida, 2001). To make exact representations of the source language and remove the language barrier, the translator can follow three steps. First, the translator can try his best to give the translation, which adheres to the source language and corresponds to the culture of the SL. However, it is too hard to get that point. Second, if the above goal cannot be achieved, the translator has to give up form for equivalence and achieve the purpose by changing the pattern in the translation. Third, if even the second method cannot achieve the desired purpose, the translator may decide to make up words in the TL (target language) to express the culture in the SL (source language).
Among few studies on Chinese dish name translation, Wen Yuee (2006) showed that three methods should be followed in the translation of the menus: literal translation, free translation, and both. In Cai Hua's (2003) study, he not only mentioned the methods in Wen's paper but also provided another way of translation. That is, the dish named Dongpo Meat can be translated according to the historical literary reference. Based on the previous researchers' studies, the strategy used in the translation of names of the dishes can be summarized as follows. First, Pinyin can be used to translate raw materials to emphasize the style and the flavor of the food. Second, the style of cooking could be translated. Third, the translator can directly use the literal translation or the free translation, while also using Pinyin transliteration (Hou 2004; Liang 1999). As the translations of dish names are done for the foreign visitors who are not familiar with Chinese culture and customs, the translation should be comprehensible to foreigners rather than Chinese people. However, no previous studies have investigated the English translations of Chinese dish names from the point of view of the readers, i.e. the foreigners. Therefore, this study attempts to explore the reader's understanding of the English translation of Chinese dish names and provide the strategies of translation of Chinese dish names in terms of the reader (foreign visitor).
3.1. Why is a case study adopted?
A case study is used to gain in-depth understanding replete with meaning for the subject, focusing on process rather than outcome, on discovery rather than confirmation (Burns 2000: 460). It contains a rich description and it could also be "used to develop conceptual categories or to illustrate, support, or challenge theoretical assumptions held prior to the data gathering" (Merriam 1988: 28). In addition, the case study provides a way of exploring complicated social units composed of many variables of potential significance in understanding the phenomenon (Merriam 1988; Pasters 1995). It offers insights and demonstrates meanings that expand its readers' experience. These insights can be constructed as putative hypotheses; hence, a case study is salient in advancing a field knowledge base (Merriam 1988). Case studies are also descriptive, dynamic, and rely upon naturally occurring data, and are therefore the most appropriate means for studying the reader's experience. The participant, i.e. the receiver of the translated text could provide the most important data, such as her understanding of those translated dish names. These are relevant to finding out whether the translated text could be accepted by the target language readers and how the translated text could be improved.
Several restaurants have been investigated for data collection, among which there are three-star restaurants, four-star restaurants and five-star restaurants. Since these restaurants serve quite a variety of dishes, the menus they provided differ significantly. The same Chinese dish names are identified from the menus (see the appendix). There are twelve similar Chinese dish names shared by the three kinds of restaurants. Although they have the same Chinese names, their English translation varies. For example, 毛血旺 (Mao Xue Wang) is translated as "Sichuan Style" by the three-star restaurant, "Spicy Harslet" by the four-star restaurant, and "Sautéed Eel with Duck Blood Curd" by the five-star restaurant. These data are collected for the purpose of judging their appropriateness from the point of view of a target language reader. Based on the data collected from the restaurants, an interview was conducted with an American lady who has lived in China for several years. The interviewee was asked to express her opinion about the English translations of Chinese dish names in the appendix table. Apart from the judgment made by the interviewee, she was asked to explain her opinion. Her ideas were taken as reference for the improvement of those dish name translations. The interview is recorded and transcribed in full.
In line with the research question of how the receiver understands the English translation of Chinese dish name, the data collected are reviewed many times. First, the data collected from the three kinds of restaurants are categorized based on their similar Chinese dish names. English translations of these Chinese dish names from these restaurants are compared to see their differences and their appropriateness. For example, "Sichuan Style" by the three-star restaurant is inappropriate for the translation of毛血旺 (Mao Xue Wang) because it is too general to refer to a specific dish and there are many Sichuan style dishes. Thus, the problems with these translations from different restaurants are identified and analyzed. In the meanwhile, the interview transcripts are read again and again to see how the interviewee evaluates the English translations of Chinese dish names collected from the restaurants. In what follows, the results of data analysis are presented.
4.1. Preliminary analysis of data collected from restaurants
Six dish names are selected from the data collected from the restaurants (see the following table) because they represent the typical translations of Chinese dish names.
Different translations of the names of Chinese dishes in different restaurants
In the above table, three ways of translation of one dish name毛血旺 (Mao Xue Wang) are shown. In the three-star restaurant it is translated as "Sichuan Style" which confuses readers. "Sichuan style," for Chinese people, means the spicy food based on the Chinese food culture of Sichuan province. However, foreigners cannot understand its meaning, for they do not know what is in the dish, and how it tastes. "Spicy Harslet" given by the four-star restaurant is better than the former. Harslet means heart and liver and other edible viscera, especially of hogs. The translation gives us the ingredients of the dish but it does not say exactly what kind of organs it is made of. Perhaps, the five-star restaurant provides the best one. It not only gives the flavor, "spicy," but also shows the exact ingredients in the dish. It may be easier for the English readers to understand.
Then let us see the translation of水煮牛肉 (Shui Zhu Niu Rou). It shows another translation method. Comparing the "Sautéed Beef in Sauce," which appeared in a certain three-star restaurant with "Poached Sliced Beef in Hot Chili Oil" in a five-star restaurant, the former provides the materials and the cooking method of the dish, while the latter gives a vivid picture of the food, including the ingredients, the cooking method, and the color, the three essential elements of Chinese food. Thus, the second translation makes the dish sound truly appetizing.
The dish怪味猪手 (Guai Wei Zhu Shou) also has two translations: "Pig's knuckle" and "Braised Spicy Pig Feet." The former one presents some problems in that it presents the raw material without any other additive, for instance, its flavor or color, which are essential elements of Chinese food. Compared with the former one, the latter one shows the flavor, the cooking method, and the raw material in the food.
四喜东坡肉 (Si Xi Dongpo Rou) has two translations: "Four Braised Dongpo Meats" and "Braised Dongpo Pork." "Four Braised" in the name of dishes means nothing. In the first one, we can not find either raw materials or the cooking methods. It has not given the basic information which the foreign tourist may expect. Then the second one provides the method of the dish cooking and the raw material. However, if it can be provided with such information as color or flavor, it can be the better one.
The next one is桂花冰糖藕 (Gui Hua Bing Tang Ou), which is translated as "Sweet Lotus with Osmanthus" and "Steamed Lotus Root Stuffed with Sweet Sticky Rice." The first one tells what is in it, but it does not tell how it is cooked. This kind of translation will make the reader confused and it is not the preferred one. Then the second one provides the materials, the cooking method, and the flavor.
The last dish is 八宝辣酱 (Ba Bao Na Jiang) which has been translated as Mixed Chicken with Peanuts Shrimp Bamboo and Eight Kinds of Food. The former one provides more information, while the latter one is confusing because eight foods might be any kinds of food--meat or vegetables. This may provide the wrong information for the readers. If the dish turns out not what they expected, they may feel cheated.
During the interview, the interviewee emphasized that the translations shown to her were good but she thought they might be more confusing for people who did not know Chinese food very well. She suggested the translation should be direct and clarify what foreigners want to know. With regard to the difference between the translations in mainland China and western countries, she thought that in western countries the translations were more related to what was in the food rather than the translations done in China. However, some dishes like "Kung Pao Chicken" are also popular in the United States. As she said, if one said "I wanna Kung Pao Chicken," waiters would know he or she wanted: spicy diced chicken with peanuts.
When she was asked that if there was no English menu in Chinese restaurants, how could she order the dishes? She said, "I either know what I want to order or I can point at the pictures or point at the food of somebody else's table." and "I can use words to describe if I know what I want." Then she told one of her experiences. "There was one time when they didn't have what I wanted and I didn't actually know what the meat was that they gave me in the end." This shows that an English menu is indeed necessary in Chinese restaurants.
She was shown some of the translations of the dish names which shared the same Chinese names and she was asked to choose which one she preferred. The first dish name is毛血旺 (mao xue wang). It has been translated as "Sichuan" style and Sautéed Eel with Duck Blood Curd respectively by two restaurants. She explained: "the 'Sichuan' style tells me probably in Hot Chili Oil and Sautéed Eel is likely to be fried, so I'll think it is fried." She told the investigator that she preferred the latter translation for its adequate information.
The second Chinese dish name is 水煮牛肉 (Shui Zhu Niu Rou). It is translated as Sautéed Beef in Sauce and Poached Sliced Beef in Hot Chili Oil respectively. After reading the two translations she said: "I would just think Sautéed Beef would be just fried beef and maybe a sauce but then if you say Poached, it is likely to be boiled and it's just hot chili oil, so I would think that would be confusing because they mean two totally different things." So a wrong or improper translation may lead people in the wrong direction and make them misunderstand the item.
The third Chinese dish name is 怪味猪手 (Guai Wei Zhu Shou). It is translated as Pig's Knuckle and the typical Chinglish Braised Spicy Pig Feet by the investigated restaurants. She said "Pig's knuckle" doesn't tell us anything about how it's cooked. So it could be steamed or it could be fried or could be stewed. It is better to know how it is cooked, so the second one is a better translation."
The next Chinese dish name is 水煮鱼 (Shui Zhu Yu). It is translated as Spicy Fish and Fish Filets in Hot Chili Oil by the restaurants. She thought western people would like the second one better because Fish Filets tells people that the dish is just meat without the bones. She said: "If you have a spicy fish, that could be the whole fish or chopped fish containing both desirable and undesirable parts. "Fish Filets" says it is only edible meat."
The fifth Chinese dish name is 水晶虾仁 (Shui Jing Xia Ren). It is translated as Shrimps Sautée and Sautéed Shrimps with Broccoli by the restaurants. She thought the second one is better...because it gave her more information.
The sixth Chinese dish's name is 四喜东坡肉 (Si Xi Dongpo Rou). It is translated as Four Braised Dongpo meat and Braised Dongpo Pork by the investigated restaurants. She said: "Braised Dongpo Pork is better because four braised doesn't mean anything and I would think maybe there are four different spices or something, but it doesn't really mean anything. So I don't know what to expect."
The seventh Chinese dish's name is 冰糖桂花藕 (Bing Tang Gui Hua Ou). It is translated as Sweet lotus with Osmanthus and Steamed Lotus Root Stuffed with Sweet Sticky Rice by the restaurants. She said, "I think I would take the second one. It would be better because it gives you more information. The first one tells you what's in it but it doesn't tell you how it's cooked because all I know is that lotus is probably root and the osmanthus is just flower to me...so...I wouldn't know how it's cooked."
The next Chinese dish's name is 蟹粉豆腐 (Xie Fen Dou Fu). It is translated as Stewed Bean Curd with Crab Meat and Stewed Crab Roe and Tofu by the restaurants. She said: "They are both fine but the bean curd and tofu are the same to us, so that doesn't matter. But the crab meat and crab roe are very different. Crab roe is just eggs, the small eggs and the crab meat is the meat from the crab. So if you order crab meat and then you get crab roe instead, you will be very surprised."
To our surprise, when we asked her about the translations of 醉鸡 (Zui Ji) as Drunk Chicken and Liquor-Soaked Chicken, she said, "The first one is a little bit better because actually most western people know that one. The other way you can say maybe to specify the alcohol that is used. So maybe Rice-wine Marinated Chicken would be better than Liquor-Soaked Chicken. We don't use liquor that much. We would use uh...usually a kind of alcohol. So if you use wine or rice-wine or brandy or whatever the name of the alcohol, that's what we normally use." This means the translation in the five-star restaurant is not absolutely better than that of others.
The next Chinese dish's name is 辣子鸡 (Na Zi Ji) which is translated as Fried Chicken with Red Pepper and Spicy Chicken. She told us that probably Fried Spicy Chicken would be better because with red pepper sometimes people were not sure whether it is pepper or chili. In America they use red pepper to talk about red capsicum, so it was belt pepper. But if it's chili pepper, people might expect something different.
The next Chinese dish's name is 八宝辣酱 (Ba Bao Na Jiang). It is translated as Mixed Chicken with Peanut Shrimp Bamboo and Eight Kinds Food. She said: "So the first one would be the best one for western people because we don't know what the second one means. It could be any kinds of food. So for us it could be any surprise kinds of food, or meat or vegetable. Unless the people are very familiar with that dish, they will probably not order it."
The last Chinese dish's name is 百合南瓜 (Bai He Nan Gua) which is translated as Lily and Pumpkin and Marinated Lily Bulbs and Pumpkin by the restaurants. The interviewee said the second one was better because it gave more information.
During our conversation, the interviewee emphasized several times that more information including raw materials and cooking methods should be provided in the English translation of Chinese dish names. Therefore, it could be concluded that when foreigners ask for the menu and order the dishes, they will read the menu for more information. For instance, what is in the food or how it is cooked may be important for foreign tourists. Different ways of cooking for them mean different flavors and images. To western people there is a big difference between deep-fried chicken and steamed chicken. They like to know what kind of food it is, especially if they are not familiar with Chinese cooking. Therefore, the translation of names of Chinese dishes into English at least should include such information as what is in it and how it is cooked.
Above all, the yardstick of the translation of the names of Chinese dishes can be given as follows. The first one is that the translation should have enough information such as the raw materials and the method of cooking. The second one is that the translation should illustrate the three elements of Chinese dishes: color, aroma, and flavor. In addition, the history and the culture had better be added to the translation of the Chinese dish names.
Based on the data collected from the various restaurants and the interview conducted with the native English speaker, we can have an idea of what is more important for the foreign visitor with regard to English translation of Chinese dish names. They want to have the clear picture about what they are eating. That is the reason why overseas restaurants have the menus with clear information. In China, there are many ways of cooking that are world-famous. We should make the name of Chinese dish more clear in the target language and make visitors more informed.
In the first place, according to the functional equivalence theory, the translation is not word-for-word translating; it requires flexibility. In short, the good translation means to use the words to convert one language to another language and at the same time make it clear for the reader of the target language what he or she is reading. Taking into account the needs of foreigners, the information about what is in the food should be included in the English translation of Chinese dish names.
As we all know, Chinese cooking has several traditional methods such as cooking, stewing, rinsing, burning, roasting, steaming, frying, deep, rapid, and other cooking styles and cooking methods make different dishes. Therefore, the exact cooking method of the dishes should be shown in the names of dishes.
Last but not least, the order of the raw materials included in the dish's name is very important. In accordance with English custom, meat is mentioned before the vegetables. So the English name of the dishes should be ordered as follows: the cooking method first and then the meat, and the last the vegetable.
In summary, such information as the ingredients of the food, the method of cooking, the elements of color, aroma and flavor should be provided when translating the name of Chinese dishes into English. In addition, it would be the best to demonstrate the unique feature of Chinese history and culture embodied in the name of Chinese dishes in the translation. These can be used as the criteria for the translation of the names of Chinese dishes.
The language style used in Chinese dish names has certain unique features, which present a number of challenges for their translation. Translation strategies such as literal, semi-literal translation and free adaptation all have certain limitations in fulfilling the function of conveying an equal amount of information from Chinese into English meaningfully and naturally (Ko 2010: 120). According to the current study, translating Chinese dish names into English should provide adequate information first. At least the materials and methods used for cooking the dish must be clear from the dish's name. Furthermore, the historical, cultural and social features contained in Chinese dish names could be included in the English name to attract more interest in the food.
Every country has its own customs. Translating from the source language to the target language requires the knowledge not only of the meaning of the words but also the knowledge of the culture and the customs. Without these factors, the translation will make the readers confused and be hard to understand. The translation of the names of dishes also needs to be adhering to the rules, which meet the need of the reader of the target language.
Translation is not only a language issue, but an issue of cross-cultural communication (Zhu 2007). Language, culture, and translation cannot be separated. The language is the carrier of the culture and culture is rooted deeply in the language. Different countries have different languages. Without translation, they cannot communicate. A good translator should be familiar with both languages and, most importantly he or she should be acquainted with the culture of both countries.
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Appendix: Different translations of the names of Chinese dishes in different restaurants
Published - December 2010
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