Lost in Digestion.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Monday, 28th January 2008
Yeoh Siew Hoon pleads for Beijing's restaurants to stick with those wonderful & whacky menus that turn every meal into a Chinese opera.

I read the headline, "Lost in translation no more", with a heavy heart. The sub-head, "Beijing to come up with standardised English translations for outlandish-sounding dishes, in run-up to Olympics", made my heart sink even further.

Like a lead balloon, it plunged and went Pfft …

What. No more "frying the small room fat of the crabs" and "the simple fried foods which have good luck". No more "the crabs with large meatballs" and "the king snakes by spiced salt". (You can see I have a thing for crabs and snakes.)

I think all of us who love Chinese cuisine and the Chinese language should lead a revolution against those who would translate all the colour out of both.

To me, one of the joys about eating out in local Chinese restaurants – not those tarted-up, contemporary, could-be-anywhere eateries on The Bund – is reading the menu in English and, given my extremely rudimentary knowledge of written Chinese, then guessing what I could be ordering and eating.

It's part of the whole experience of eating out. Just as how Italians can turn ordering dinner into an opera by Verdi, reading a literally-translated menu in English can transform a dinner experience into a Chinese opera – full of suspense, drama and flavour.

In my dust-collecting boxes of memorabilia are at least a dozen menus I have pilfered from local restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Lijiang. Those fake Gucci bags come in handy on such occasions. You can pretty much stuff an A4-size menu into those hold-alls without anyone catching you for menu-lifting.

And every now and then when I wish to be inspired – like for this column – I dig them out and read them cover to cover.

My favourite is one from a restaurant in Shanghai whose cover reads "Exullent Business" and "New Shanghai weal cuisine".

It's my favourite not just because of the translations but also because the meal was one of the best I had without knowing what I was ordering.

We made it a point to order only those dishes with the most perplexing descriptions. For eg "the snake-head shellfish whose bodies are stabbed only bu one cut", "the ‘red' which is in a class by itself surrounede with sweet-smwlling and delicious lees", "the mushroom whose tops are like those of monkeys holding to centers of greengrocery" and "the seafoods frying a kind of bean curd clothes which are named ‘loud bell'".

Nothing turned out as we expected – actually, we didn't know what we expected – but they all tasted good.

And now they're telling me that the Beijing tourism bureau is going to "release a set of standardised English translations for Chinese menus before the Spring Festival next month", which it hopes restaurants will adopt for their bilingual menus ahead of the Olympic Games in August.

The final draft is expected to contain translations for more than 2,700 dishes and drinks.

When the financial manager of the famous Peking duck restaurant, Liqun Roast Duck, was asked for her comments, she said, "The standard English menu is good news because some small restaurants' English menus are a mess. The key is to help people understand what they're eating."

Now where's the fun in that? If people want to understand what they're eating, they can go to McDonald's and Burger King. The whole idea of travelling is to experience the new, the strange, the colourful – and the Chinese language, as she is literally translated into English, gives foreigners insights into the culture, like nothing else.

Which other culture would describe fried noodles as "The dragon mustached mixed with fried noodle have good luck" or claypot rice as "the cooked rice which are cooked with Chinese pot with steep wall being famous".

I know which I'd rather have.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.
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