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Chinese dishes have 'official' English names

Chinese dishes have 'official' English names

Updated: 2012-03-13 19:58


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BEIJING - Eating at a Beijing restaurant is usually an adventure for foreigners, and particularly when they get the chance to order "chicken without sex life" or "red burned lion head."

Sometimes excited but mostly confused, embarrassed or even terrified, many foreigners have long complained about mistranslations of Chinese dishes. And their complaints are often valid, certainly regarding "chicken without sex life" as it's really just tender young chicken, and "red burned lion head" is braised pork ball in brown sauce.

But such an experience at Beijing's restaurants will apparently soon be history.

Foreign visitors will no longer, hopefully, be confused by oddly worded restaurant menus in the capital if the municipal government's plan to correctly translate 3,000 Chinese dishes is a success and the translations are generally adopted.

The municipal office of foreign affairs has published a book to recommend English translations of Chinese dishes, which aims to help restaurants avoid bizarre translations.

It's the city's latest effort to bridge the culture gap for foreign travellers in China.

The municipal government published a similar list of translations before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, and recommended it to starred hotels across the capital.

"The latest book is an updated version of the 2008 pamphlet. It provides the names of main dishes of famous Chinese cuisines in plain English," an official with the city's Foreign Affairs Office said.

"Restaurants are encouraged to use the proposed translations, but it will not be compulsory," the official said.

Confusing and sometimes ridiculous translations on the country's menus provoke the mirth of foreigners, and even cause misunderstanding on China's dietary habits.

A delicacy, which used to be translated as "red burned lion head," is now called "braised pork ball in brown sauce" in the book.

"The book will help foreigners decide what dishes to choose, let them know what they are eating and how it is prepared," said Chen Lin, professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Coming up with precise translations is a daunting task, as some Chinese culinary techniques are untranslatable and many Chinese dishes have no English-language equivalent.

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, is used, such as mapo tofu (previously often literally translated as "beancurd made by woman with freckles"), baozi (steamed stuffed bun) and jiaozi (dumplings) to "reflect the Chinese cuisine culture," according to the book.

"The book is a blessing to tourist guides like me. Having it, I don't have to rack my brains trying to explain Chinese dishes to foreign travellers," said Zheng Xiaodong, a 31-year-old employee with a Beijing-based travel agency.

"I will buy the book as I major in English literature and I'd like to introduce Chinese cuisine culture to more foreign friends, " said Han Yang, a postgraduate student at the University of International Business and Economics.

It is not clear if the book will be introduced to other parts of China. But on Tuesday, this was the most discussed topic on, China's most popular microblogging site, with over 200,000 tweets as of 4:20 pm Beijing Time.