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Literal Translation of Chinese Dishes

Chinese food is great! It has layers of flavors and many spices. Well, that is, if you know what you are ordering. Most of the time when you walk into an authentic Chinese restaurant, you are presented with an English menu that is not English, you have no clue what 90% of the menu says. You may end up playing it safe by ordering hot and sour soup or sweet and sour pork, because you see insects and rare animals describing the food on the menu- and that’s simply a line you don’t want to cross.

But wait, what happened to your great idea of enjoying an authentic Chinese meal? Most dishes are not as scary as they appear on the menu. More often than not, there has been a literal translation that doesn’t make sense in English.

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Ants Climbing a Tree

You see a description on the menu saying “ants climbing a tree”, maybe today is the day you should be brave and try some insects! They say ants are good for your health because they are full of protein. Stop worrying! There are neither ants nor trees in the dish. This is actually stir-fried glass noodles with ground pork. The dish got its name from the tiny bits of ground pork on the top of the glass noodles that when looked at from faraway look like ants!

Lion Head Meatballs

“Is it even legal to eat a lion?” you wonder. No matter how adventurous this might sound to you, no, you will not be eating a lion head today. These are giant PORK meatballs stewed with Napa cabbage. The name was given to the dish by a government official in ancient China, because the shapes of the meatballs look just like the heads of the stone lions that were placed in front of traditional Chinese houses to guard the household.

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Stir Fry Black Fungus

Technically speaking, it is indeed a fungus. But it is not the fungus you are picturing in your mind right now. Think of it as one kind of mushroom. The black fungus requires a similar environment to grow in as mushrooms and they both belong to the fungi family. Black fungus has a crunchy texture similar to seaweed. It has plenty of iron and goes well with all types of vegetables. In Chinese, we call it “wood ear” because it is shaped like an ear and grows on tree trunks.

Literal Translation

One important note to keep in mind is that many Chinese dish names are derived from a story or local culture. Some ingredients can only be found locally, and many of the dish names are not even remotely related to what the dishes actually are. Therefore, when translating this type of content, accurate descriptions of the dishes depend heavily on cultural knowledge; literal translations simply will not work.

When a literal translation does not work, the communication bridge is closed.  For example, fungus is probably the most accurate English translation we can achieve, but most people have no idea what it really is. Cultural-based content needs to be “transcreated.” In other words, there is no need to translate word-by-word. The crucial part is to think about what information needs to be passed to the target audience, and how to pass the information in a way that one can understand (and as a bonus not be horrified).

Translation is important because it connects us even though we do not all speak the same language. It helps us understand other cultures better and to embrace differences. It should never confuse us or stop us from exploring other worlds, or worse yet, stop anyone from eating delicious Chinese food!