September 11, 2006

The shrimp did what to the cabbage?

Welcome, BoingBoing readers. A few Language Log posts have been linked in a recent BoingBoing discussion about the mysterious appearance of the word fuck in Chinese menus seeking a translation-equivalent for GAN 'dry' (干). The issue first came up here in "Engrish Explained," and then again in two guest posts by Victor Mair, "A Less Grand Chinglish" and "GAN: Whodunnit, and how, and why?" The Language Log links were provided by a reader responding to a Flickr photo showing a sign at a buffet reading, "The shrimp fucks the cabbage." Once again, the polysemy of GAN (translatable as either 'to dry' or 'to do,' with the latter sense used as a colloquialism for 'to fuck') leads to a very unfortunate English rendering. (A proper translation would be "stir-fried dried shrimp with bok choy.")

Based on an update to Victor Mair's second post, Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing speculates that "a possible source for all these misplaced F-words on Chinese menus" is "a bug in a popular translation software app, perhaps intentionally placed by a mischievous person." The more likely story, as given by a Sinologist going by the handle "xiaolongnu" in this guest post, is the reliance in China on dictionaries claiming to provide "real idiomatic American English." The more slipshod of these dictionaries may give fuck — a true-blue American idiom — as the only translation-equivalent for GAN.

(An earlier BoingBoing entry links to a 2002 article from the London Telegraph reporting that authorities in Beijing were cracking down on incomprehensible Chinglish signage, with the objective of achieving "linguistic perfection" in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. I wonder how that campaign is going!)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 11, 2006 01:00 AM