The Smell of Urine in Your Noodles

Menus are a great source of mistranslations. The situations for making a mistake in translating are all there – a person who does not know enough English to translate, an owner who just wants the menu translated into English, and no one to correct the errors. Although there would be a lot of diners who would see the error in translation, there would be few who would take the time to talk to the owner about correcting the error. In addition, the owner would most probably not really care about an insignificant error.

The “smell of urine mixed with dried something” does not sound like a dish worth having on the table no matter if the picture looks like a yummy bowl of noodles. Besides not having an adequately trained translator, or someone on the staff who knows enough English, there is the Chinese language to contend with. An object can have multiple names, and even a single syllable can be pronounced differently yielding different meanings. A case in point is “ma,” which when pronounced one way can mean “mother,” and pronounced in a different way, would mean “horse.”

When translating between English and a European language, there are some common roots. These are either through the Germanic languages, or through Latin or Greek. In contrary, when translating between Chinese and English, there is usually no bridge or common root between words. There have not been enough years of interaction between these two cultures for the language to mix. A case in point is General Tso’s Chicken, which is a popular dish found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.A. However, it is not found in any other Chinese restaurant in any other country. There is not even a General Tso to begin with.

It is easy to mix in “urine” in any name for a Chinese dish, or any Chinese word, if you do not know any Chinese. The opposite is also true. In fact, there are more translations from Chinese to English, than there are translations from English to Chinese. It would be fun to see what errors in translating from English to Chinese have occurred through the years.

Image credit – Lost in translation: our top 20 picks via Lonely Planet

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