March 11, 2006

Engrish explained

Illustrations of fractured English, particularly from East Asian countries, get passed around quite a lot online. There are even entire websites devoted to collecting absurd examples. Most notable is, focusing on Japan, where English is frequently used as a design element in advertising regardless of whether the words make much sense contextually. Others revel in poorly translated English as it appears on hotel signs, menus, and the like. (One well-circulated compilation originally appeared in Richard Lederer's 1987 book Anguished English.) Such collections tend to get tiresome — even when not explicitly racist, they nonetheless partake in a long xenophobic tradition of ridiculing the English usage of non-native speakers. Belittling the pidginized English of speakers from East Asia has an especially checkered past in American dialect humor.

Every once in a while, though, there is a presentation of "Engrish" that both amuses and enlightens. Jon Rahoi, an American living in mainland China, posted scans from an exceedingly bizarre restaurant menu — so bizarre that a commenter accused Rahoi of forging the whole thing with Photoshop. But "an anonymous professor of China studies" came to Rahoi's defense by demonstrating exactly how one evocative menu item ("Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk") could have reasonably ended up that way through dictionary-aided word-for-word translation.

Take #1313, "Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk." It should read "Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu." However, the mangled version above is not as mangled as it seems: it's a literal word-by-word translation, with some cases where the translator chose the wrong one of two meanings of a word.

First two characters: "ma la" meaning hot and spicy, but literally "numbingly spicy" -- it means a kind of Sichuan spice that mixes chilies with Sichuan peppercorn or prickly ash. The latter tends to numb the mouth. "Benumbed hot" is a decent, if ungrammatical, literal translation.

Next two: "jiu cai," the top greens of a fragrant-flowering garlic. There's no good English translation, so "vegetables" is just fine.

Next one: "chao," meaning stir-fried, quite reasonably rendered as "fries" (should be "fried," but that's a distinction English makes and Chinese doesn't).

Finally: "gan si" meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as "dry silk." The problem here is that the word "gan" means both "to dry" and "to do," and the latter meaning has come to mean "to fuck." Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China means people choose the vulgar translation way too often, on the grounds that it's colloquial. Last summer I was in a spiffy modern supermarket in Taiyuan whose dried-foods aisle was helpfully labeled "Assorted Fuck." The word "si" meaning "silk floss" is used in cooking to refer to anything that's been julienned -- very thin pommes frites are sold as "potato silk," for instance. The fact that it's tofu is just understood (sheets of dried tofu shredded into julienne) -- if it were dried anything else it would say so.

For more along these lines, see these scans of menus from Shanghai and discussion in the comments section. Some of the same mistranslations appear, such as 干 'dry' getting transmogrified into fuck. At least one of these menus evidently had its text fed directly into Babelfish or a similar automated translator, which is a surefire recipe for disaster.

(In the interest of equal time, I'd also like to recommend a blog previously discussed here by Mark Liberman: Hanzi Smatter, "dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.")

[More on this here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 11, 2006 12:49 AM