Lost in Translation

It was way back in college. I self invited and piled on with a friend for one of the wedding feasts of her cousin. Tired of varieties of gourds on offer in hostel menu, the thought of some protein in my diet was appealing. While I settled for mutton curry my “Bengali” soul ached for “Phish” (The Bengali tongue often confuses Ph for F ). A little disappointed my flat mate sprung a surprise next day when she came back with a box of sweets. She said how did I find the Jhinga? Jhinga in Bengali is a variety of gourd, a summer vegetable we cook with poppy seed paste or add it to Moong Dal. I did not even see any merit in this question. While I was struggling to see a point a friendly neighbour who was used to my “Hindi” chipped in. She asked me if I liked the prawn curry. To my shock, I realised there was some confusion. My friend added, Jhinga means Prawns. I realised I had missed out on tasting the “Jhinga Curry” because I thought it was bottle gourd curry. I gathered my composure and told myself that one needs to learn the names of non-vegetarian items in Hindi. Similarly, a friend went to Kolkata and ordered Jhinga Posto thinking she would be served a dish made of prawns/ shrimps with poppy seed paste. As the green vegetable peeped from the poppy seed paste she realised that there has been a miscommunication. Another friend of mine migrated to Kolkata and was placing an order for his tiffin. After bored with Fish and dishes over a week he decided to order “Dim” thinking it would be some Bengali exotica. To his irony when two eggs peeped from an oily red gravy. He realised that it’s best to pick up some Bengali words.

I am sure such adventures are part of everybody’s food trail. Every time I look through City of Joy’s (a Bengali restaurant in New Delhi) Menu I wonder how food metaphors could be translated as it is steeped in one’s cultural sensibilities. For instance under the section on Breads/ Rice they have something called Maa er Hather Roti. While in Bengali it sounds fine, for any non- Bengali speaker, and particularly in English it would sound ridiculous if one were to literally translate this item. It would mean “Flattened bread from your Mother’s hands”. Thankfully City of Joy does not translate such metaphorical usage of words and leaves it to your imagination but recently I received links of two news items from B which adequately explains how such adventures can turn out to be linguistic mis-adventures. In other words, how food metaphors find new meaning in such cases of appropriation and translation.

Have you ever ordered “Chicken without sex life” or “beancurd made by women with freckles” in a Chinese restaurant in Beijing? These are the literal translations of some of the dishes and the book published by Municipal Office of Foreign Affairs aims at helping restaurants to avoid what the news report calls such cases of “ bizarre translations”1. If the translations of 3000 odd dishes on offer are used by the restaurants the English speaking audience will no more hear dishes like “Chicken without Sex life “ which has been translated to “Spring chicken” or “Red burned lion head” which would know be known as “braised pork ball in the brown sauce”. The translators according to this article translated the names of dishes using four rubrics : ingredients, cooking method, taste and name of a person or place.  The book aims to solve the confusions that English speaking food lovers encounter when they hear the bizarre translations. While the translator’s efforts might have saved the food lover’s confusions in the near future what’s the harm in retaining these metaphorical translations of everyday life with a description of food… The best in this series of translation was relating Fuqi feipian which used to be called Husband and Wife’s Lung slice. Now it will be called Sliced Beef and ox tongue in Chilli Sauce… For a visual treat of these dishes with how the lexicon takes over food metaphors please visit the following link on the book of translations (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-03/15/content_14837721.htm).

So next time you are in Beijing you might be told how Ludagunr is not Rolling donkey but glutinous rice rolls stuffed with red beans and paste. 2


1 For details see “No More Chicken without Sex Life” in http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2012-03/14/content_14833808.htm.

2 For details see “Cuisine Lexicon Offers Tasty food for thought” in http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-03/15/content_14837721.htm.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s