What’s in a pie?

July 2nd, 2011 by xgz

Back from Beijing now and recovering. One thing you do and do a lot in China is to eat in restaurants. One of our favorite places to go is 汉莱 (hanlai) in 中关村 (zhongguancun). This is an upper scale buffet restaurant with Chinese, Japanese and Western foods. Normally such upscale restaurants do not have any bad translations – they can afford to hire competent people. This time, however, we found something really hilarious. There was a food item labeled “corn sent”. The Chinese said 玉米派 (yumi pai). This is a very interesting type of mistranslation. The word 派 (sound “pie”) obviously is transliterated from the English word “pie”. But its Chinese meaning is “to send” or “a faction.” Thus the mistranslation.

This type of mistranslation happens a lot. Here is a maker of cooking equipments. Look at its English translations of the equipments. The Chinese list is on the left of the page, and the corresponding English list is on the right. There are a lot of bad translations in this list (you would never guess what “wake up under the baking furnace” is – it’s a double drawer furnace where the top drawer is for baking and the bottom drawer for proofing). The one mistranslation I want to show you is “Chieftain plastic”. Its corresponding Chinese name is 土司整形机 (tusi zhengxing ji, meaning “toast shaping machine”). The Chinese word 土司 (tusi) here is used to transliterate the English word “toast.” Although its sound is a little different, and Chinese already has a perfectly accurate description 烤面包片 (kao mianbao pian) for it, the use of 土司 (tusi) as the translation for “toast” has become more and more accepted because it sounds western. Unfortunately, 土司 (tusi) already has its own meaning (and the Hong Kongese who came up with this translation probably didn’t put much thought into it). It means (as you would have guessed already) “Chieftain”. Thus another case of garbled back translation from a transliterated English word. By the way, the word “plastic” is derived from “plastic surgery”, which shares the first part of the phrase for “shaping” (整形, zhengxing).

A third example is on this webpage. It is a milkshake maker. But the English translation is a puzzling “Milk/Past take care of a machine.” This is because milkshake is translated to Chinese as 奶昔 (naixi), which is a curious combination: 奶 (nai) means milk, but 昔 (xi) is a transliteration of “shake.” The real meaning of 昔 (xi) is “past.”

It seems that I can only come up with examples with food names. Are there other examples of such mistranslation?

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