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”.

Terrible mistakes on Chinese restaurant menus provoke the mirth of foreigners all over the world. Who could forget being offered “burnt lion’s head” for dinner? A quick internet search brings up reports of such delicacies as “benumbed hot Huang fries belly silk” and “the fragrance explodes the cowboy bone”. My own personal favourite is actually from the chic pink-and-white packaging of a biscuit whose name was translated as “iron flooring cremation” (a one-by-one literal translation of the characters tie ban shao, which should have read “baked on an iron griddle”).

Yet one can understand the desire of the Chinese leadership to avoid such embarrassing errors, particularly in a year when they are determined to show their best face to the world. The authorities have already urged Beijingers to queue up nicely and avoid spitting. Tourist restaurants have been advised to stop serving dog meat during the Games, and there’s even been a directive offering sartorial advice that includes not going out dressed in pyjamas. In such a clean, orderly Olympic city, what place is there for “steamed crap”?

Jokes aside, there is a practical need for decent translation of Chinese restaurant menus. It’s not just that foreigners might like help in deciding what individual dishes to choose; the success of a shared Chinese meal depends upon careful ordering.

A dinner in which more than one dish is sweet-and-sour or everything is soupy is a gastronomic disaster. A good meal, by contrast, pleasures the palate with a whole variety of experiences. Even in a top-class restaurant, unless you understand a little of the nature of the dishes on offer – their colours, flavours and cooking methods, their moistness or dryness, their shapes and textures – you won’t be able to devise a stimulating and harmonious menu.

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.

Perhaps, then, we should follow the example of French cuisine, and borrow wholesale from the Chinese lexicon. When cooking and eating French food, English-speaking people freely use words like sauté, hollandaise and mayonnaise. Even our most basic culinary concepts – chef, menu and casserole – are straightforward linguistic thefts from the French. Should we not do the same with Chinese? We already do to some extent – think of “wok”, “wonton” and “dim sum”; and “tea”, which comes from Fujianese dialect. Some alien Chinese concepts also jump over linguistic boundaries, like “small eats” (a literal translation of the Chinese xiao chi) and “mouth-feel” (from kougan).

Yet you can only go so far in borrowing from Chinese because, beyond a certain level, you have to know the actual Chinese characters to understand precisely what you are talking about. In Sichuanese cuisine, for example, there are two cooking methods that would both be transliterated as kao, but you can’t tell them apart unless you see the actual characters. The different characters for “salty” and “umami” are both rendered in the Roman alphabet as “xian”.

There are also issues of taste and cultural judgement. The most famous Sichuanese beancurd dish is mapo doufu, which literally translates as “pockmarked old woman’s beancurd.” Meant affectionately, it sounds at first rather abusive in English. Similarly, there’s a chain of hotpot restaurants in Sichuan called Cripple’s Hotpot (pazi huoguo), and a snack shop called Hairy Mole Dragon-Eye Nuns (zhi huzi longyan baozi) – named after their original proprietors, one of whom was disabled and the other who had at least one hairy mole on his face. And if you fancy a stir-fried chicken supper, do you really want to know that the menu also offers “animal reproductive organs in pot”? Sometimes a little linguistic obfuscation might be a good thing.

Finally, how do you capture the wit and poetry in the names of many Chinese dishes? Take Dan dan mian – in Chinese, its name is a beautiful onomatopoeia that evokes the bouncing motion of baskets carried on a street vendor’s shoulderpole, and the street vendor’s cry. Translated as “shoulderpole noodles”, it loses its sound and rhythm; as “Dan dan noodles”, it sounds nice but lacks meaning. Even the “husband and wife lung slices” singled out by the official Chinese news agency as particularly unsavoury tells the tale of a couple of Chengdu street vendors of the 1930s whose marriage was famously harmonious, and whose spicy beef offal won the undying affection of the city’s residents.

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.

Yet the list is a pale reflection of one of the world’s most marvellous cuisines. Lyrical descriptive terms – like feicui (jadeite) for greenish foods, and guaiwei (strange-flavour, used for an intriguing combination of tastes) have been lost in the translation, and mapo doufu has severed its connection with the lovable pockmarked old dame of Chengdu. As Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily, this standardised translation is “a double-edged sword. It removes the ambiguity and unintended humour …But it takes away the fun and the rich connotation too. It turns a menu into the equivalent of plain rice, which has the necessary nutrients but is devoid of flavour”.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s most recent book is ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’ (WW Norton)

GLOSSARY: Tree-climbing ants to spicy minced pork
Chinese ‘pinyin’Official translationLiteral translation
Mapo doufuMapo Tofu (stir-fried tofu in hot sauce)Pock-marked old woman’s beancurd
Ban shuang erTossed black and white fungusTwo ears tossed together
Fuqi feipianPork lungs in chilli sauce‘Man-and-wife’ lung slices
Zui jiLiquor-soaked chickenDrunken chicken
Guaiwei zhushouBraised spicy pig feetStrange-flavour pig feet
Hongshao shizitouStewed pork ball in brown sauceRed-braised lion’s heads
Yuxiang rousiYu-Hsiang shredded porkFish-fragrant pork slivers
Mayi shang shuSauteed vermicelli with spicy minced porkAnts climbing a tree
Kou shui jiSteamed chicken with chili sauceMouth-watering chicken
Feicui xiarenSauteed shrimps with broccoliJadeite shrimps
Xiangcun dafengshouRaw vegetables combinationA bumper harvest, village-style

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