Effect Measure

Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD, not to be confused with a disease of cattle, Foot and Mouth Disease) is the result of an infection by one of several intestinal viruses, the most common being Coxsackie A and Enterovirus 71 (Ev71). HFMD is a fairly common contagious infection of infants and children that often appears in outbreak form in schools and daycare centers. Children with HFMD have fever, sore throat and characteristic lesions around the mouth and in the throat. Recently some very sizable outbreaks caused by Ev71 have been reported in China, Singapore and Mongolia, with thousands of cases and scores of deaths. It made news headlines around the world and within China. Given the way news of disease outbreaks is handled in China, this isn’t a given, unfortunately, but in this case the Chinese were quite aware of the outbreak and its cause (for more on the outbreak in East Asia, see the great eye witness account by Tara Smith over at Aetiology). That seems to be the explanation for the “braised enterovirus” on the menu of this Chinese restaurant (h/t reader gh):

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The explanation for this is quite interesting. According to a fascinating post over at The Language Log, the Chinese characters, 干锅肥肠 (GAN1GUO1 FEI2CHANG2), translate literally to “dry pot fatty intestine,” described as a popular dish from the regions of Szechuan and Hunan. (The numbers after the words GAN, GUO, FEI and CHANG represent one of the four different tones, and hence different meanings, each word can have in Mandarin Chinese.) According to one of the site’s correspondents, the Chinese characters for enterovirus is CHANG2 BING4DU2 or CHANG2DAO4 BING4DU2 肠(道)病毒. The only thing the two have in common is CHANG2, the word for “intestine.” The Language Lab’s theory is that the HFMD outbreak was responsible for the confused translation:

As you can see, neither by confusion of sound nor by confusion of shape can one (or, I should think, even a machine translation program) mistake FEI2CHANG2 肥肠 (“fatty intestine”) for CHANG2(DAO4) BING4DU2 肠(道)病毒 (“intestinal virus”). Consequently, I am inclined to believe that the “Braised Enterovirus” on this menu arose as the result of much talk about enterovirus in China (there was a major outbreak in early May of this year), and somebody involved with the making of the menu who heard or saw the English word for the disease next to the Chinese term making the assumption that “enterovirus” = CHANG2. (The Language Lab)

As they point out, it could have been worse. The menu item also contains the word 干 GAN1 of 干锅 GAN1GUO1 (“dry pot”). The word Chinese word GAN1 (干) has become a notorious source of bad (but hilarious) translations. Referring to compilations of these kinds of linguistic miscues The Language Log notes the following:

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.

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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.

(“Engrish Explained,” The Language Lab)

The problem, then, is the word “GAN1,” meaning “to dry” or “to do.” Apparently there are now a lot of Chinese – English colloquial dictionaries in use in China where alternate meanings of words are given. A colloquial use of “to do” in English can be seen in phrases like, “I want to do you,” meaning, well, you know what it means. If you are using such a dictionary and select the wrong option, you can get something like this (notice the GAN character, 干, in each entry):

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I know from previous experience the use of bad words here offends some people. If you are one of them, the only thing I can think of to say is this: Go dry yourself.

Comments

  1. #1 Left_Wing_Fox
    July 17, 2008

    Personally, I still find those hilarious, just because of the sheer absurdity of walking into a restaurant, looking at the menu, and being offered to “Fuck a fish head”. I expect there’s plenty of chinese tourists getting a good laugh out of similarly bizarre translations of our menus when subjected to those ubiquitous pocket translators.

    To be fair, I think it’s equally funny when English speakers make the same mistakes the other way. The old “Parker Pens will not leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” ads (Which used the term “embarazado” to mean “Embarrassed”)

  2. #2 C. Corax
    July 17, 2008

    What great swear phrases. The next time someone cuts me off in traffic, I’ll give them the traditional Massachusetts’ driver gesture of greeting and yell, “Fuck a fish head!”

  3. #3 caia
    July 17, 2008

    C. Corax: If you’re interested in novel and entertaining swears, you might appreciate this: The 9 Most Devastating Insults From Around the World.

    WARNING: foul, offensive, and hilarious. Most of them make “fuck a fish head” sound like, “Top of the day to you!”

  4. #4 mts
    July 17, 2008

    At a restaurant in Palo Alto, twenty years ago, the menu said

    “Steamed Park Bums (sauced)”

  5. #5 victoria
    July 17, 2008

    Caia and Revere,

    Just had the funniest breakfast ever. A great start to the day. Thank you.

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    July 17, 2008

    Dude, great fucking post!!! LOLZ!!!

  7. #7 neil
    July 18, 2008

    Even in a U.S. territory (St Thomas.)

    Slir flied shirmp..,

    How they got that way is beyond me.

  8. #8 slovenia
    July 18, 2008

    In a political science class devoted to the importance of cultural sensitivity in business and, specifically, the need to back translate, the professor related the story of Pepsi opening a new market in SE Asia (Thailand, if memory serves). They had their slogan

    Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!

    Translated into Thai and plastered on billboards all over Bankock. Unfortunately, and scandalously, the slogan read, in Thai, “Pepsi raises your ancestors from the grave!”

  9. #9 Brook
    July 18, 2008

    I got a couple of free meals retranslating menus (I’m not sure why these hole in the wall places in Taiwan wanted English on their menus, but all the big kids were so, hey, free food is ok by me)

    My favorites were actually typos not mistranslations “Fried bean crud” instead of “fried bean curd” and “steamed crap” instead of “carp”.

  10. #10 paiwan
    July 18, 2008

    Here try my first language-Chinese:

    1. Gan(1) is dry, Gan(4) is to do. Nevertheless, the new writing (Communist parsimonious writing mixes the above two in same writing.) Taiwanese edition can tell the different writing.

    Gan(4) to do: meaning that the action must complete the full courses and with full heart to achieve the ecstasy. In general, it depicts a very dedicated connotation; for instance, to do your work, Gan(4) Ho(2): meaning to do and make you job alive. So, if you say to your boss “Gan(4) Ho(2)” to express that you are doing your job. The boss will be very pleased.

    Gan(4) to mean fuck is not polite; the decent expression is Wun(1) Tsun(3) ( to mutually deposit tenderness). To let your food fuck with pot is no problem, you will see the fire burns on foods with all spices added by the full courses in few minutes; it is pretty good description.:-) People if not used to this style don’t need to be discouraged. The second cooking is to let the foods simmering for six hours (Chinese don’t use oven.) in between by adding the full courses. The second one also belongs to fuck. Long fuck. One dish called Buddha Jump Over The Wall is by this fuck recipe. Two paths.:-)

    2. Thread (silk ) is not tofu, it is a kind of grass noodle made from green bean.

  11. #11 ringo
    July 18, 2008

    Wait, so “dry ho” means “to work hard”?

  12. #12 themadlolscientist
    July 18, 2008

    ZOMGZWFTBBQLSMFT u iz just killd me ded wif teh ROFLz!!!!!!!!elebentyhunderdelebentyeleben!!!!

  13. #13 paiwan
    July 18, 2008

    ringo:

    This Ho (2) should be pronounced Ho-o in Chinese, long vowel sound. “Hard” is minimal request, has to make it alive.

    Gang(4) is verb form. Can dry have action? I don’t know.

    Remember, the boss will appraise the outcome. :-)

  14. #14 paiwan
    July 19, 2008

    Normally, public health- chapter: sex education, ended in adolescent version. Versions for later stages; mid-life crisis, senior adolescents are supposedly self study. Or have to study thru eating food, etc. Shy enough!?

  15. #15 Graculus
    July 20, 2008

    Gang(4) is verb form. Can dry have action? I don’t know.

    Well, it can in English.

  16. #16 paiwan
    July 21, 2008

    “Well, it can in English.”

    Graculus: You are not often visiting here( under this name), sorry I don’t understand your English, please explain more.

    My English is Shakespeare’s different version; “Frailty, thy name is (man).” To be fair, maybe I have to mention one person of this side of Atlantic Ocean, Dr. Scott Peck’s English; his best book among his publications- “Further to The Road Less Traveled”. It has related tips for this ( imagination requested). He was one of the best honest Americans-celebrity grades that I have ever known. Unfortunately, he died at 65. So his experiences could be referred to that stage. Waht is your age anyway?

  17. #17 rickr
    July 25, 2008

    “My nipples explode with delight!”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Hungarian_Phrasebook

  18. #18 derek
    August 14, 2010

    paiwan: In Shakespeare’s English, dry can “have action” (be verb form). See here. In many of these examples, “dry” is an adjective, but in some, dry is a verb.