Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I'd Like a Helping of the ... uh ... Never Mind

If you've traveled overseas, or if you've eaten in an ethnic restaurant here at home, you have almost certainly encountered some of the amazingly disastrous translations of various dishes from the original language into English. One of my favorites goes back to a restaurant I used to frequent in Berlin many years ago, where one of the house specialties was the Zigeunerspieß - mouth-watering chunks of meat and vegetables served on a skewer (Spieß, in German), seasoned in the spicy gypsy (or Zigeuner) style, and roasted over the coals. Unfortunately, the menu rendered the Zigeunerspieß as Gypsy Spit ... which carried with it the undesirable imagery a swarthy fellow with a big black mustache hawking a loogie onto the plate. This is the problem that arises when you translate using a dictionary without considering the suitability of the various options ... a skewer in English can indeed be called a spit, but context is important.

I thought about this when I read this interesting article on Atlas Obscura - Why Menu Translations Go Terribly Wrong. As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons for bizarre menu translations, not all of which are just the selection of the wrong option for a single word (spit, rather than skewer, in my example above). For instance, there are the issues of translating between languages like Chinese that use ideographs, and our alphabet-based language - ink fish is the Chinese pictorial rendering of the delicacy we know as squid (although an alphabet-based German would also call it Tintenfisch, or ink fish, as well ... go figure).

Other complicating factors include, according to the article, unusual styles of preparation or ingredients unique to a particular culture. All of these lead to the sort of menu translation howlers with which you are familiar from my Great Moments in Editing and Signage posts, like these ...

I can understand the unfortunate translation of "donkey" as "ass" in the first example, but would welcome the advice of a Chinese linguist who could explain the "Immortal Old Duck Soup."

All things considered, I'll just take the hamburger and fries, please.

So, Dear Readers, next time you encounter a bizarre translation, have a bit of understanding for the poor, linguistically and/or culturally challenged person who had to come up with that memorable name. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Have a good day and a memorably-named dinner. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

You gave great advice in thisi amusing post Thanks!

Chuck the Grumpy Cat said...

The descriptions of dishes in some ethnic restaurants does put me off.

Mike said...

There's your part time retirement job. Menu translator.