Adventures in translation 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, do you know what Rocky Mountain oysters are? If not, Google it, and come back when you get the answer. We’ll wait.

{Jeopardy music plays in background ….}

OK, so now you know they are bull testicles, what the big guy loses on his way to becoming a steer. In the Mountain West, they are considered a delicacy, though I will confess I have never eaten them despite spending two years in Wyoming. And I don’t really care for oysters, either, which is almost sacrilegious considering where I was born.

Today I helped a friend, Ailsa, translate a Chinese menu into English for one of her friends, who wants to open a restaurant featuring local cuisine. We managed OK, until we came across a special dish, 汉寿老水鱼炖牛鞭 (HanShou laoshui shuiyu niubian), her friend had translated as “bullwhip with turtle stew.” Neither Ailsa nor I knew what to make of “bullwhip.” I guessed it might be the tail, as in oxtail soup, but I was a little off the mark. I had the right idea, but the wrong location.

Our electronic dictionaries were of no help. We resorted to the Internet (we baidu’d it, meaning Ailsa used www.baidu.com), and the result embarrassed my young friend, who resorted to all kinds of oblique references, like “a part of a man’s body,” to explain what “niubian” means.

Bull penis.

So, imagine you are a Westerner confronted with this menu. Some folks can probably handle eating turtle (tastes just like chicken — really!), but I don’t think many would find “bull penis” especially appealing. “Bullwhip” is rather poetic, but an American would first imagine a long, tough piece of leather (which may be an accurate description of stewed bull penis, for all I know). I could not come up with a suitable replacement for “bull penis,” (all I could think of were words like “cock,” “dick,” “schlong,” and the like — not much of an improvement), and Ailsa’s friend needed this menu translated right away.

So we punted, and translated it as “HanShou County-style turtle and niubian stew.” Now, some poor wait staffer is stuck with the touchy job of describing what a “niubian” to the innocent Westerner.

(Of course, now that it’s too late, I have remembered the extended Austin Powers joke about the spaceship that looks just like a “hot dog,” “johnson,” and so on. “Bull johnson” could almost work as a menu item. Or better yet, “Rocky Mountain johnson” — it has a nice ring to it.)

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One comment on “Adventures in translation

  1. Reply Mandi Hunt Apr 26,2010 2:13 pm

    i know, and i know that of all bizarre things i have had, i would neva eat Them!!

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