Chinese food names

(quoted from the Breakfast Shops thread)

Lately I’ve taken to wondering, why do we feel the need to translate Chinese food names? We by and large don’t seem to for foods from most other locales - what’s guacamole in English? Borscht? Sushi? Haggis? And yet generally people know what you’re talking about when you mention foods like that - most people don’t need to be told what exactly wasabi is, for example. And leaving them in romanized Chinese would eliminate one other hassle - what do you call shuijiao? Jiaozi? Zongzi?

So basically what I’m saying is two pronged - why do we seem to feel Chinese food names need translation, and why don’t we just start calling them by their Chinese names and be done with all the confusion? Why can’t danbing just be danbing?

Because a name like Three-cup Chicken just sums up nicely what the dish is.

Chow mein is one exception where we haven’t bothered with translation into English. Fried noodles doesn’t sound correct. I’m sure there are more but I can’t think of them right now.

Going out to eat with English speaking Chinese friends can be a pain. In my experience rather than saying they don’t know the English for the food on the menu they’ll often just say the dish is “Chinese food” to narrow it down. “What do you want to eat?” is a helpful question they’ll ask sometimes. Roast lamb is never on the menu.

I feel no such need. I say most or all of them in Chinese even when speaking English. However, someone unfamiliar with the dish is left clueless unless you can add a description on a menu or when introducing a dish. Of course, that’s true with guacamole too.

I have translated the menus of dozens of restaurants, mostly for myself when I was studying menu Chinese, but also for several restaurants, and I certainly encountered difficulty in many of the translations, even when working together with the restaurant owners on it. Fortunately, the menu format we were using was name + description, so we had space to describe the dishes. One can describe shui3jiao3 as boiled, meat-filled savory dumplings, but just ‘dumplings’ doesn’t do it. In the end, for dishes like that and zong4zi, the Chinese name works better. On the other hand, for many dishes, the essential elements or portions of the name do translate well, such as three-cup chicken, red-braised beef, etc. And then there’s the solution halfway between the two, like gong1bao3 (kungpao) chicken, or pork & leeks shuijiao.

Personally, I think that there is a certain delightfulness in the meaning of some dish names like Buddha Leaps the Wall, Ants Climbing a Tree, Flies’ Heads, and so on. Translating the names allows the diner to enjoy the poetic nature of the name; otherwise it’s just an unpronounceable mishmash of Chinese words.

But since I speak Chinese, I will say cang1ying2tou2 even when speaking English, rather than saying “Flies’ Heads”. Oh, now I’m really hungry! [/i]

Then why don’t we call sashimi “raw meat slices”? Why don’t we call crepes pancakes?

Then why don’t we call sashimi “raw meat slices”? Why don’t we call crepes pancakes?[/quote]

I call it san1bei1ji1, but the translation Three-cup Chicken also works well. “Raw meat slices” is a suckwad name and you know it. :laughing:
And crepes do differ somewhat from traditional pancakes, so a difference in name is useful.

There’s no reason why only one rule (“use original name”; or “translate”) has to apply in all situations. Sometimes one will work better than the other, whether due to clarity, or aesthetic appeal, or whatever.

Tetsuo, you have a good point. People often ask me what such-and-such food is in English and I normally say to them more or less what you said. (90% of the time they’re asking me about some kind of “dumpling” anyway!) But as Dragonbones says there are a few very easy translations and like it or not, if more of these dishes do achieve a “standard” nomenclature in English or other languages then it is likely to be haphazard; some close to the original, some translations, some half-and-half and some seemingly random.

Perhaps in translation we should go for the truly descriptive; “squidgy glutinous rice flour paste dumplings with some kind of meatball inside and a bit of gloopy pink sauce on the top”. (I actually like those by the way but an English description is rather unappetizing. Another reason to keep the original name I suppose).

A good point, but often when teaching English, you want an English word, so for these purposes at least, I find an English translation preferable. There’s not much point teaching little kids to call dumplings ‘shuijiao’, when noone else in the English-speaking world would know what they are talking about.