Would you eat “red burned lion head” or does “braised pork balls in soy sauce” sound tastier — or at least like something you’ve heard of?
The debate is giving new meaning to the question “what’s in a name?”
A new book, “Chinese Menu in English Version,” jointly published by the Beijing Municipal Government’s Foreign Affairs Office and the Beijing Tourism Administration, recommends the latter for Beijing’s starred hotels.
But the latest attempt to help bridge the culture gap for foreign tourists in China during the Beijing Olympic Games has drawn mixed reactions. Some praise the book as an etiquette campaign; others say something got lost in translation.
The 170-page book, with more than 2,000 proposed names for dishes and drinks, was recommended to starred hotels across the capital to provide convenience for an estimated 500,000 foreigners coming to Beijing for the sports gala.
“It’s not compulsory. They can choose to use the translations or not for bilingual menus,” said Su Shan, a Beijing Tourism Administration official.
“About one third of the hotels in Beijing, including the 119 designated Olympic hotels, have received the pamphlet,” she added.
Visitors to China sometimes had to struggle to decipher bizarre English translations on menus, such as “chicken without sexual life” and “husband and wife’s lung slice.” The images they conjured up were not, one could say, appetizing. These dishes are now called “steamed pullet” and “beef and ox tripe in chili sauce” in the proposed translations.
“Thanks to the pamphlet, we do not have to struggle to come up with the English translations of dishes any more, which is usually time consuming,” said a senior manager surnamed Wang at the Guangzhou Hotel, a four-star downtown Beijing restaurant.
But some think a list of ingredients alone doesn’t convey the flavor of the dish.
“Although it can be useful to standardize the menu translations, it is very hard,” said Zheng Baoguo, who teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“Some dish names are deprived of their cultural background in these literal translations, which is a loss of the Chinese cuisine culture,” he added.
The translators, after conducting a study of Chinese restaurants in English-speaking countries, divided the dish names into four categories: ingredients, cooking method, taste and name of a person or a place.
For some traditional dishes, pinyin, the Chinese phonetic system, was used, such as mapo tofu (previously often literally translated as “bean curd made by a pock-marked woman”), baozi (steamed stuffed bun) and jiaozi (dumplings) to “reflect the Chinese cuisine culture,” the book said.
A handful of foreign residents in Beijing said that their chief concern was knowing what they were eating and how it was prepared, rather than the stories and history of the dishes.
Columnist Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily on Tuesday that “the process of standardizing a menu translation is a double-edged sword” that “removes the ambiguity and unintended humor” and in the same time “takes away the fun and the rich connotation.”
“It turns a menu into the equivalent of plain rice, which has the necessary nutrients but is devoid of flavor,” he said.