Braised enterovirus, anyone?

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Sara Scharf sent in a link to a Chinese menu picture from the Bad Translations group on flickr:



Victor Mair explains that 干锅肥肠  GAN1GUO1 FEI2CHANG2  — literally "dry pot fatty intestine" — is a popular Sichuanese-Hunanese dish, illustrated and explained here.

Victor continues:

A bilingual list of terms containing 肠 CHANG2 "intestine" is here.

The Chinese word for enterovirus is CHANG2 BING4DU2 or CHANG2DAO4 BING4DU2 肠(道)病毒.

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.

In fact, the restaurant avoided the standard translational pitfall here. Note that the 干 GAN1 of 干锅 GAN1GUO1 "dry pot" has often been discussed before on Language Log: "Engrish explained", 3/11/2006; "Gan: Whodunnit, and how, and why?" 5/31/2006; "Further thoughts on the riddle of gan", 6/3/2006; "The shrimp did what to the cabbage?", 9/11/2006; "The etiology and elaboration of a flagrant mistranslation", 12/9/2007.

Victor also sent a link to a livejournal post with a picture of a GAN1 menu jackpot:

All of this leads me to ask a bio-sociological question.

There are many foods that incorporate bacteria or depend on bacterial action: buttermilk, yoghurt, cheese, sausage, sauerkraut, kim chee, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, sausage, fish sauce, some kinds of wine, etc. You won't find Tandoori Murgh translated as "Broiled chicken marinated in bacteria", or Nam Pla Prik translated as "Bacteria sauce with chile" — but it wouldn't be entirely wrong.

In contrast, I can't think of any foods where viruses play a crucial role. Are there any?

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26 Comments »

  1. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 6:50 am

    …can't think of any foods where viruses play a crucial role.

    Well there's not much point in a hot honey and lemon drink unless you've got a cold, but that may not be what you mean.

  2. Tim Silverman said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:06 am

    On the biological side, it's not very suprising viruses haven't been involved in food processing. Viruses don't have have a metabolism (they work by hijacking the metabolism of their host) so they're not equipped to carry out any interesting chemical transformations. Bacteria, by contrast, are much more sophisticated, and can perform all sorts of interesting chemical transformations. In fact, the ones we ask them to do (mostly various sorts of fermentation) are among the more boring of their accomplishments.

  3. Adam Bernard said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:46 am

    Not a cucial role, but bacteriophages have recently been applied to preventing bacterial spoiling of various processed foods.

  4. Brendan said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:47 am

    Also interesting in that menu is the last item, 板栗煲仔鸡. The given translation is "Plank li bao zhi chicken," which would sound a lot like a bad machine translation except for the erroneous pronunciation 'zhi' for 仔, which is pronounced as zī, zǎi, or zǐ but never zhi. Could this be human error, or is it yet another case of machine translation error — someone with problems distinguishing between 平舌 and 卷舌 entering pronunciation data?

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:49 am

    Tim Silverman: Viruses don't have have a metabolism (they work by hijacking the metabolism of their host) so they're not equipped to carry out any interesting chemical transformations.

    Right, but they could still hijack the host metabolism or growth processes in humanly interesting or useful ways, as in the creation of tree tumors (i.e. burls) that are appreciated by woodworkers. (Though most of these are caused by bacteria, fungi and/or insects, I think.)

  6. S Onosson said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 7:54 am

    I think this is one question I don't really want to know the answer to!

  7. James Wimberley said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 8:12 am

    New Scientist has recently reported on the first discovery of a beneficial virus. But what it does is lower the risk of stomach cancer, at the price of a higher risk of leukaemia. I suspect more beneficial viruses are out there, but Mark's viral yoghurt will have to wait.

  8. [links] Link salad for a hump day | jlake.com said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 8:32 am

    [...] Braised enterovirus, anyone? — Language Log delves into the mysteries of Chinese menus, finishing up with an interesting question about bacterial foods versus viral foods. [...]

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 8:32 am

    James Wimberley: I suspect more beneficial viruses are out there …

    Well (as Adam Bernard noted above), last year the FDA approved a bacteriophage specific to Listeria monocytogenes for use as a food additive.

    But I'm looking for something else — a case where the virus plays a crucial role in the production of (some essential properties of) the food — not just as a way to prevent spoilage or as a pesticide.

  10. RPM said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    Viruses can be used to deliver genes for genetic modification. In this case, the virus itself isn't involved in food production, but the transgene it carries would provide some important function (such as resistance to a pest or pesticide, enhanced production of some desired nutrient, etc.).

  11. outeast said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    I've not heard of any such use of a virus (except in the context of genetic engineering, which I assume doesn't count!) and a search has so far come up blank.

    In the non-food sphere, though, there's apparently a plant virus which gives infected tulips an attractive pattern. Infected bulbs – that is, bulbs which produced streaked flowers – used to be cultivated deliberately (although in ignorance of the viral agent). They probably still are: you see streaked (and thus infected) tulips in florists' shops. Not quite food I'm afraid, but still…

  12. Mateo Crawford said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    Right, but they could still hijack the host metabolism or growth processes in humanly interesting or useful ways, as in the creation of tree tumors (i.e. burls) that are appreciated by woodworkers. (Though most of these are caused by bacteria, fungi and/or insects, I think.)

    See also huitlacoche/corn smut, considered a delicacy by fans of things that make me queasy. This is a fungus, but it demonstrates the principle: a virus predisposing its host to appalling growths or secretions with a culinary use isn't implausible, there just isn't one, or not one that my fairly broad knowledge of specialty foods encompasses.

  13. John Cowan said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    I did a little bit of pre-breakfast Googling, which inevitably turned up lots of hits related to computer viruses. Those folks think that beneficial viruses are just way too much trouble, and there are better ways to do anything you think a computer virus might do for you (encrypt your hard disk with a password chosen by you, compress your executables, etc.)

    But I did find several people saying variants of "Virus research is really, really hard and we don't bother with it unless it's making people sick. So if there are beneficial viruses around, we aren't going to discover them except by accident." So while it's possible that that particularly succulent lobster I was lucky enough to eat thirty years ago (ah, how well I remember it!) got its flavor from a viral infection, it's unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure.

  14. Monte Davis said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    I think Tim nailed it in one. Some of the bacterial food transformations we know of may well be modulated by the presence of viruses within the bacteria. And certainly the bacterial genomes are what they are, in part, because of viral activity in the past. But viruses themselves, floating around (ssans bacteria) in a mash or a churn or a wine vat or whatever, can't do anything to their surroundings.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Fictionally, the idea of a virus inducing production of a desired consumable has been used a number of times. For instance, in the works of Cordwainer Smith, the immortality drug "stroon" is derived from virus-infected sheep (see self-link with possibly interesting linguistic aside).

  16. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    Some winemakers believe that the stress of phylloxera or other viral infections can concentrate the flavor of the grapes (much as the botrytis fungus, "noble rot," is well known to do):

    See this article.

  17. neveu said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire says that the patterning on the tulips so desired during the tulip mania in Holland was the result of a virus.

  18. Engrish As A Second Language | Popehat said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    [...] More at the best blog on earth. [...]

  19. Peter Erwin said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:57 am

    Some winemakers believe that the stress of phylloxera or other viral infections can concentrate the flavor of the grapes …

    It would have to be something other than phylloxera, which is an insect.
    (And in general the appearance of phylloxera has meant wholesale death of vineyards, not just "stress"!)

  20. Xenobiologista said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

    Viruses really are in everything. In a lot of cases, they have almost symbiotic relationships with various organisms. Host-virus relationships can be so tight that they're used to study evolution. As John Cowan said, people probably just aren't looking hard enough.

    By the way, the dogma that virus particles don't have any metabolic activity outside of a host cell was proved wrong recently. Fowlpox virus (not chickenpox; which, confusingly enough, is a herpesvirus) has an enzyme that harvests energy from LIGHT to repair its DNA. The nanotechnology folks should be all over this, but we virologists are too grubby for them to notice.

    Going off on a tangent: there is a stand-alone Wikipedia article on the "plural of virus".

  21. misterfricative said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 4:54 am

    I don't think this is quite what you had in mind, but it would be perfect for the croutons in your enterovirus soup — <a href="http://www.abelard-and-heloise.com/weblog/GermyRaisinBreadCU.jpg" Germy Raisin Bread.

    The Chinese characters 胚芽 (Pei1 Ya2 'plumule') suggest that the intended meaning is wheatgerm, so I guess this isn't so much a translation error, but more of a sort of rendering error.

  22. misterfricative said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 4:57 am

    Oops – I screwed up the link. Corrected below:

    Germy Raisin Bread

  23. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    Brendan notes that the last item of the menu that offers "braised enterovirus" is 板栗煲仔鸡 and that the translation given for that is "Plank li bao zhi chicken." He then goes on to wonder whether that can be attributed to bad machine translation, except that — as Brendan correctly points out — ZHI is not an acceptable pronunciation for 仔, which has the following pronunciations in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM): zī, zǎi, or zǐ. Brendan then poses the following question: "Could this be human error, or is it yet another case of machine translation error — someone with problems distinguishing between 平舌 ["flat tongue"] and 卷舌 ["retroflex"] entering pronunciation data?"

    Here are my answers to the interesting questions raised in Brendan's comment. The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the term 煲仔 is a topolectal expression for which there is no "standard" pronunciation in MSM. In Cantonese, whence it comes, this term is pronounced pou53 tʃɐi35. The closest approximation of that in MSM would be BAO1ZAI3. 煲仔 occurs three times on the menu. In the title it is rendered as "bao zai," in the second item it is given as "Pot zhai," and in the last item, it is romanized as "bao zhi." The second graph, 仔, also occurs in the fourth item on the menu, where it is given as "zhai." Thus, for 仔, we actually have a score of 2 ZHAI and 1 each of ZHI and ZAI.

    Judging from all the other romanized syllables on the menu, it is clear that the person who wrote the English version was trying to present MSM pronunciations in pinyin. However, the fact that the term 煲仔 does not really exist in MSM, but is only transiently borrowed into the "standard" language, may have led to a certain amount of instability and uncertainty in the mind of the person doing the English translation. This lack of assurance would have been exacerbated by the multiplicity of pronunciations for 仔 in Mandarin itself (ZI1, ZI3, and ZAI3). I conclude, therefore, that the translator simply wasn't sure how to represent the 仔 syllable in MSM, though was tending toward ZHAI, which we might call a "Mandarinized" form of Cantonese tʃɐi35.

    I should also point out that this Cantonese tʃɐi35 syllable, which causes so many headaches for Mandarin speakers, is also represented by the graph 崽. If we want to claim a "correct" Mandarin pronunciation for Cantonese tʃɐi35 as written with the characters 仔 or 崽, it ought to be ZAI3. Judging from this priceless menu and lots of other evidence, however, Cantonese phonology has the ability to influence Mandarin phonology, at least ephemerally.

    By the way, BAN3LI4 should be translated as "Chinese chestnut," not "Plank li."

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    I should have mentioned that 煲仔 in Cantonese means a small, usually earthen, pot with a flat bottom. If you do a Google Image search on 煲仔, you can find lots of pictures of them filled with mouth-watering dishes.

  25. malvasia bianca » Blog Archive » random links: september 1, 2008 said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 1:38 am

    [...] I laughed out loud at the second menu. These ones are amusing, too. [...]

  26. more very questionable menu translations said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    More technical botanical terms used colloquially:
    http://flickr.com/photos/isogloss/3254498541/in/pool-badmenus

    Foie gras, anyone?
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/isogloss/3113471425/

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