The process of standardizing a menu translation is a double-edged sword. It removes the ambiguity and unintended humor, for sure. But then it takes away the fun and the rich connotation too. It turns a menu into the equivalent of plain rice, which has the necessary nutrients but is devoid of flavor.
The Beijing municipal government's foreign affairs office and the Beijing tourism bureau have jointly published a book, Chinese Menu in English Version. It lists 170 pages of Chinese and Western dishes, and beverages. And nowhere is "chicken without a sexual life" to be found.
The book will no doubt come in handy to those restaurants that depend on translation software for the English names of dishes. "Government Abused Chicken" is now correctly rendered as Kung Pao Chicken.
It is praiseworthy that the translators - two dozens of them - conducted a study of Chinese restaurants in English-speaking countries, which have distilled the mishmash of translated terms into a more or less universally accepted set of norms.
In this sense, the process of standardization has been going on for at least 150 years, and all the book compilers needed to do was to collect as many overseas menus as possible.
Still, it is an encouraging sign that they have opted for acceptance rather than dogmatism. Moo Shu Pork (Sauteed sliced pork, egg and black fungus) has taken the place of an otherwise unpronounceable Muxu Pork.
Brand names such as Tsing Tao Beer and Cantonese dialects such as Wonton have been preserved too. Unlike the debate on place name translation, vanity gives way to pragmatism.
The pamphlet does not include such items as "General Tso's (or Tsao's) Chicken" and "Singapore Fried Rice", popular mostly overseas. For that matter, Yang Chow Fried Rice and even the well-liked Egg Foo Young are not included. It seems Chinese restaurateurs in North America need not bother with this translation aid.
Special effort has been taken to promote the transliterations of items like Jiaozi, Baozi, Zongzi, Mantou and Huajuan. The rationale is clear: These items have subtle differences that cannot be conveyed with "dumpling" or "bun".
If we divide transliterations into three levels of success, will they be as successful as Chow Mein, tofu or tea? Can they overcome unpronounceable syllables like zi? It takes more than one upsurge of foreign clients.
What is puzzling is the use of transliteration when the meaning can be tersely put across in English. Why is "fish-flavored" passed up and "yu-shiang" chosen? The latter does not mean anything for those who are not into the Chinese language.
Kung Pao Chicken：宫保鸡丁
Moo Shu Pork：木须肉