Food Names

Using English names in Taiwan can be a problem. Restaurant menus might be my favorite example. A lot of Chinese restaurants here feel compelled to offer an English menu. The owners think it gives their restaurant that certain je ne sais quoi. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t go to the effort.

Food inherently sounds bad in English, even if the translation is good. It is a problem with the language. Britain has contributed to world culture in many ways, but its contribution to world cuisine has been less than stellar, consequently food sounds singularly unappetizing in English. Restaurants in the West know this and put as much of their menu as possible in a foreign language. French and Italian sound delicious and are good choices.  Which are you more likely to order calamari or deep-fried squid, escargot or snails, ris de veau or a calf’s pancreas?

Such subtleties are inevitably lost on Taiwanese restaurant owners who think that an English menu gives their restaurant a certain continental charm. Many restaurants provide English translations for the dishes they serve.  Even small family run restaurants often have menus running up to three hundred dishes.  Developing the English menu is a monumental task that used to frequently fall to the eldest child, who still in school and forced to study English, must be up to the task. Usually they took a very literal approach, thus you could find yourself in a restaurant choosing between the Horse Urine Eggs or the Chicken Blood and Testes in Chafing Dish. I have seen both on Taiwanese menus during my earlier days here. I went with the Horse Urine Eggs. Delightful.

The arrival of Google has really helped with this problem. It is now possible for our hypothetical restaurant owner, or child, to go online and find a reasonable translation for many Chinese dishes. With just a few seconds on Google I was able to create this short English menu for a hypothetical restaurant.


豬血糕 Pig’s Blood Cake

皮蛋 100-Year Old Egg

臭豆腐Stinky Tofu

油豆腐Oily Bean Curd

靈芝金銀鴨血羹 Duck Blood, Mushrooms and Tofu Soup

麵筋百葉 Fried Wheat Gluten Puff and Tofu Skin

家常皮凍 Pork Skin Aspic

鹵水鴨舌 Marinated Duck Tongue

拌爽口海苔  Sea Moss with Sauce

米醋海蜇 Jellyfish in Vinegar

鹵水鵝頭 Marinated Goose Heads

拌雙耳   Tossed Black and White Fungus

紅燒牛蹄筋  Braised Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce

火燎鴨心 Sautéed Duck Hearts

美極掌中寶  Sautéed Chicken Feet in Maggi Sauce

幹鍋雞胗 Griddle Cooked Chicken Gizzards

咕嚕肉   Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat

臘八豆炒臘肉   Sautéed Preserved Pork with Fermented Soy Beans

米粉扣肉 Steamed Sliced Pork Belly with Rice Flour

梅櫻小炒皇 Sautéed Squid with Shredded Pork and Leek

幹豇豆燉豬蹄   Braised Pig’s Feet with Dried Cowpeas

芸豆燜豬尾  Braised Pigtails with French Beans

小炒脆骨 Sautéed Gristle

九轉大腸 Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce

鍋仔藥膳烏雞   Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs


The problem is, despite a sound translation, the dishes sound awful. If you’re unused to Chinese food, I can understand being turned off by the dish itself. Some of the dishes include things that seem inedible; goose heads, tendons, and gristle. Others just seem putrid; jellyfish, fungus, fried wheat gluten, pork skin, duck tongue, chicken’s feet, intestines, gizzards, pig’s feet and tails. But, among these dishes are some of my favorite Chinese foods. I’m not turned off by the dish itself, but I do find the English names off-putting. A 100-Year Old Egg? Why would anyone want to eat something that old? This is probably a nicer translation than Horse Urine Egg, but only marginally. Stinky Tofu is one of my favorite treats (here), but stinky is a horrible adjective for food. I know it is a translation of 臭, but I think the English has a more unpalatable feel.

The names provide almost no description and are merely a statement of what is in the dish. Despite this, somehow these names manage to be shockingly descriptive, in a negative way. Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat, it is the “with Fat” that makes this sound bad in English. In the case of Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, even if the fact that they are intestines doesn’t bother you, the name is still unappealing. The juxtaposition of intestines with brown sauce leaves much to be desired. It is hard not to imagine intestine’s other brown sauce. Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs sounds bad in English. Why does the chicken have black bones? What’s wrong with it?

I wish restauranteurs wouldn’t translate their dishes into English.  Chinese is poetic and makes many dishes sound intriguing: 螞蟻上樹 (Ants Climbing a Tree) or 佛跳牆 (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall). I would rather order youtiao than Oil Stick, jiaoyan ruge than Fried Pigeon with Spiced Salt, or mao xue wang (毛血旺) than Two Types Blood and Two Types Innards in Spicy Sauce. If you find yourself faced with a menu that lacks English, do what I did for years, call the server over and randomly point at some dishes. It’s fun. It is like going into a store and buying a mystery box. When you receive the food, then you’ll know what the characters mean. It is a good way to learn Chinese and explore Chinese cuisine.

Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.

Vignette #8: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix

I was out with a group of guy friends the other night, drinking and trying to demystify the world’s most nebulous enigma. Chicks. There’s nothing unusual about that. All around the world men set out every evening to help each other come to grips with the female mind. Just as often the sun rises on those conversations with no deeper understanding having been achieved. It’s the universal male pastime—beer and quack theories.

When expats do it though there is an extra level of opacity between them and their love interest—culture. It is truly hard to know if the craziness is cultural, clinical bonkeritis, or female. As someone who has spent his whole life among expats I can tell you that these discussion focus heavily on the cultural. Sometimes the discourse can get quite sophisticated. Guys trying to add their own refinements to the scientific advancements being made by comedians working on the Hot-Crazy Matrix (Video). A friend once eloquently argued for adding a third axis to the Matrix to plot cultural factors, kind of an index of Chineseness. Beer doesn’t just produce pee; it produces brilliance.

On this most recent night of drinking, it landed like a bombshell on the evening’s drunken social psychological analysis of my bud’s wife when it was realized that she’s crazy. No cultural component involved. The bias towards cultural factors is so pervasive in these late night philosophy sessions that it took twenty-odd years of marriage, and discussion with the bros, to cut through the cultural noise and recognize a psychological issue.

The tendency to give primacy to cultural factors is natural. Expats live in an environment where the prevalent culture affects every aspect of our lives, sometimes in confusing ways. We’re used to dissecting the effect of Taiwanese family dynamics, education, interpersonal relationships, and other cultural norms on our lives. Often expat men are slow to realize when the problem isn’t that she’s Taiwanese; it’s that she’s a woman.

The Great Chinese Language Scam Revealed

I have a theory. I do not believe that Chinese is a tonal language. It is alleged that Mandarin has four tones: 1st tone (a high flat tone); 2nd tone (a rising tone); 3rd tone (a dipping tone, where the tone falls and then rises again); and, 4th tone (a falling tone). I don’t think so.

If Chinese really were tonal that would mean that at some point in prehistory the language’s inventor had to be sitting around choosing words for his new language, and decided that it would be smart to assign an awful lot of unrelated items/actions essentially the same word. Imagine the scene: Our ancient scholar sits under the banyan tree naming things brought by his assistants. First they bring him some rope, he looks at it judiciously, and says, “I shall call this ma (麻) [hemp]”. Next the assistant leads in a horse, the great sage deliberates, and calls it ma (馬). Just then a toad hops by stalking an ant, and the sage looks upon it and names the toad ma (蟆). When the toad catches the ant, the sage exclaims, “Look that ma just ate a ma (螞)”, giving predator and meal the same name. Just then the sage’s mother comes to see him. He looks upon her with filial eyes and calls her ma (媽). But, then she spoke angrily to him and asking why he was lying in the tree’s shade with chores still to be done. “Ahh, ma why must you always [thinking on the fly the scholar decided his mom’s actions were best described as, you guessed it] ma (罵) [scold] me so?” In a moment of bold inspiration he ended the sentence with ma (嗎) indicating to his mother that he was asking a question. Quite proud of his achievements he decided to take a little morphine, or what he fondly called ma (嗎), and drifted off to sleep.

Notice that in the story there are different words in English for the different things. That is logical and expected. However, in spoken Chinese they’re all the same word. The characters are different, but they developed much later than the oral language. I randomly chose the ma sound, but could just as easily have used shi, xi, chi or any other Chinese sound.

It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Obviously the language’s oral indistinctness causes limitless opportunities for miscommunication. For example, if I’m saying something about miandian am I talking about Myanmar or a bread store. Who knows? Or, if I’m mentioning koujiao, am I referring to the corner of the mouth, a blowjob, or garnering your wages? Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe you can get it from context—is the penis pointing towards the corner of the mouth or scraping the tonsils? Obviously this is no way to make a language.

If we were to accept that Chinese is tonal, then we’d also need to accept Ma ma ma ma, ma ma ma as a valid sentence. That’s problematic. I would contend that no one would be thoughtless enough to create a language that way. Even if one person were that crazy, certainly no one would adopt such a language. It would be a dead language before it got started. It would be lunacy for tones to play a central role in expressing meaning, therefore there are no tones in Chinese. Q.E.D.

What I think is happening is that the Chinese are playing the greatest practical joke in history, and it is Andy Kaufmanesque in its surreal brilliance. Nobody expects it from the Chinese. Everybody thinks they have no sense of humor. Turns out they’re freaking hilarious!

I see them giggling behind their hands as foreigners try to pronounce Chinese with ridiculously exaggerated tones:

Foreigner #1: NIIiiIII  HHhaaAO MA?

Foreigner #2: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO,  NIIiiIII  ne?

Foreigner #1: HHEEennNHHhaaAOO 

Chinese Man #1: Aiyah, listen to those two foreigners.

Chinese Man #2: What a pair of silly tits. Seriously, who’d speak like that?

Chinese Man #1: I can’t believe we’ve been pulling this for millennia.

Chinese Man #2: It never gets old.

If you’re a student of Chinese, just when you start making progress with tones, someone will crank up the joke and tell you that you’ve been doing the tones all wrong. They’ll claim that if a 3rd  tone word is followed by another 3rd tone word, the preceding word changes to 2nd tone. If there is a series of 3rd tone sounds in a row, then each in turn changes to 2nd tone, until the final 3rd tone word, which reverts back to 3rd tone.


should actually be

nNiiII  HHhaaAOO


They’re pulling your leg. It is an obvious practical joke. Who is going to keep track of how many 3rd tones they will be saying in a row, and which will be the last in the series? If that much calculation were required while speaking no one would ever be able to produce a sentence.

Even children are in on the joke. Ask a young Chinese person to teach you a tongue twister sometime. They may teach you a genuine tongue twister like:

吃 葡 萄 不 吐 葡 萄 皮 ,不 吃 葡 萄 倒 吐 葡 萄 皮

Chi pu tao bu tu pu tao pi, bu chi pu tao dao tu pu tao pi

This will have you tripping over the words. But, if the child has a sardonic sense of humor he might suggest this tongue twister:

媽媽騎馬。 馬慢, 媽媽罵馬。

Mama qi ma. Ma man, mama ma ma

Not a terribly tough “tongue twister” is it? Even having never spoken Chinese, you should be able to say this one very quickly. It is almost all the same word. See, this joke operates on many levels and can be appreciated by a diverse cross-section of Chinese society.

Well played my Asian friends, well played.