Chinese menus are famously both fascinating and riddled with grammatical errors, no matter where you find them in the world.
Like just about everyone else in the developed world, I’ve come to rely on my trusty Chinese food takeout joint for survival and enjoyment of life. I firmly believe that all freelancers, in translation services and other industries, would die off en masse if Chinese food were ever made illegal or unavailable for some reason. In fact, it’s so iconic that if you pay attention almost every scene in a film or TV series that’s meant to imply people working hard throughout the evening will feature a pile of the iconic white takeout boxes.
And yet, from a language translation point of view, one of the most amusing things in the world is, quite honestly, Chinese menus. They are reliably entertaining for non-Chinese speakers, and simultaneously traumatic for people who do in fact speak Chinese. There are two vectors for this level of hilarity: On the one hand the comical mistranslations of some of the dishes normally found on a Chinese menu, and on the other the very slim grasp of English grammar most of the translators engaged in menu work seem to have.
The Virgin Chicken
In China, traditional dishes often have a very significant name derived from folklore or other culturally-rich sources, and just as often the names of food dishes are very pedestrian and literal. For example, you may from time to time see a dish named Virgin Chicken or even Chicken without Sexual Life. Sounds exciting! Yet a better translation would be Spring Chicken – it merely means very young chickens, a similar concept to veal.
You might also see something called Court Abused Chicken. This one is more familiar to us as Kung Pao Chicken, a spicy and delicious dish made with Cashew nuts. What’s fascinating about this name is that there must be a story attached to it, but it’s lost to the mists of time.
While many Chinese restaurants are obviously owned and staffed by native Chinese, what’s amazing is how often their menus are riddled with errors, even in this day and age when you might imagine the founders of the restaurants have been in their new homes for a very long time. Yet their menus are often textbook examples of bad translation work, with many of us in the linguistic field convinced that the main reason so many Chinese restaurants have pictures of their menu items on the walls is because they know that their menus are nigh-unreadable.
Combined with the mistranslated names mentioned above, newcomers to Chinese cuisine might be forgiven for having little idea how to order correctly. But then, that’s always the fun of ordering Chinese take out, isn’t it – it’s an adventure. You might not always recognize what you’ve ordered, but chances are very good you will enjoy it no matter what it’s called – even if it’s called Husband and Wife's Lung Slice or something equally bizarre and unappetizing.