Can't find on Google

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Max Pinton sent in this menu and said he "thought it was a refreshing approach":

Cheezburger, where this menu was posted, gave it the title "Google Failed, but This Restaurant Probably Won". Actually, Google didn't fail.

For chǎo shuǐlián 炒水蓮, which is straightforward, Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, Bing Translator, and even iciba correctly give "fried lotus", so there's no excuse for saying "I can't find on google".

So what's going on here?

In the first half of the menu, aside from the zany "I can't find on google but it's delicious", the other three items, although translated somewhat sloppily, are within the ball park. In the second half of the menu, simply looking at the English, you can tell that the translator was just playing games and wasn't making a serious effort to render the names of the Chinese entries. They also were careless about the Chinese inputting.

A couple of examples:

Where they typed huāzhī quān 花芝圈 (lit., "flower fungus circle"), which they translate as "Mermaid in Deep sea", it should probably be the homophonous huāzhī quān 花枝圈 ("squid rings; deep-fried calamari rings").

Where they typed màikè Jíkuài 麥克吉塊 ("Mike's lucky pieces"), which they cutely translate as "McDonald's best friend", it should probably be the near-homophonous màikè jīkuài 麥克雞塊 ("Mike's chicken pieces [i.e., nuggets]").

The other two items are of a similar goofy, slipshod quality.

How do we account for this strange combination of slapdash Chinese and hit-or-miss English? My surmise is that this menu might have been put together by Koreans or Japanese (or some other group who are not native speakers of Mandarin) in Taiwan.

First of all, the prices are in New Taiwan dollars, so this menu is from Taiwan. Second, the menu twice refers to cabbage as "Gāolí cài" 高麗菜 ("Korean vegetable"), whereas I know at least half a dozen other Chinese words for cabbage that, at least to me, are more common than "Gāolí cài" 高麗菜 ("Korean vegetable"). Third, huāzhī 花芝 (lit., "flower fungus") doesn't really mean anything in Mandarin, but it is at least a pronounceable name in Japanese: Hanashiba. Fourth, érzǎisū 兒仔酥 is a rare expression for a mock oyster crisp (hézǎisū 蚵仔酥) such as might be found in a vegetarian restaurant associated with Japan (see the caption to the 14th photograph here for an explanation of the name of this dish).

Or maybe the menu was made by some Taiwanese person who was lazy or tipsy, in which case there might be some interference from Taiwanese language which I haven't been able to detect. Overall, though, this menu seems to be quite an inept way for a restaurant to present itself to the public.


  1. Jim Breen said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 12:10 am

    Interesting about 花芝, which is indeed a place name in Japan, e.g. a suburb in Nara. In Japanese 芝 means lawn or turf these days.

  2. Max Pinton said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 1:24 am

    Well, "refreshing" in the "refreshingly honest" sense, not the "refreshingly well-translated" sense.

  3. DanV said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    "高麗菜" and "兒仔" are both common terms in Taiwan. "兒仔" is given the Taiwanese pronunciation. Don't know whether the Taiwanese comes from the Japanese.

  4. DanV said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 1:41 am

    My mistake, the Taiwanese do in fact use 蚵仔, not 兒仔.

  5. richardelguru said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    And you must admit that they have a case for Chicken McNuggets being at least among McDonald's best friends.
    Maybe some influence from someone with a weird sense of humour?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 6:20 am


    "someone with a weird sense of humour"

    Believe you me, that thought certainly crossed my mind a number of times as I was working on this post.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 6:22 am

    In Chinese 芝 usually means "Chicago" (Zhījiāgē 芝加哥) or "cheese" (as in zhīshì hànbǎo 芝士汉堡) these days. It generally means "sesame" only when bound (as in zhīma 芝麻) or "fungus" only when bound (as in língzhī 靈芝 [Jap. reishi], lit. "numinous fungus", i.e., ganoderma).

    I have a question for Jim Breen or other Japanese colleagues: how has 芝 come to mean "lawn" or "turf" nowadays?

  8. Rodger C said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 6:59 am

    "Numinous fungus" sounds like something a shaman would eat.

  9. Jennifer Alexandra said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:33 am

    I'm not sure what it says about my feeling for language (I work with words for a living but am very much a linguistics layperson) that I felt pretty confident "Mermaid in deep sea" was cephalopod of some sort, but a few days ago had no idea what "cladly dressed" might be until that post spelled it out.

  10. Mark Hansell said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    I've heard 高丽菜 quite a bit as the word for 'cabbage' in Taiwan (Specifically European-style green cabbage, the kind you make sauerkraut or cole slaw out of.)

  11. Marek said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:55 am

    The first thing that struck me about this image is that the person responsible for the translations would know how to say "I can't find on google, but it's delicious" but would render squid as "mermaid". So I think some intentional goofiness may indeed be at work here.

    >so there's no excuse for saying "I can't find on google".

    If you suspect the authors weren't native Mandarin speakers, I think it's possible they were originally looking up the dish names in their native language (before translating it into Mandarin).

  12. BZ said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    My theory is that the Chinese part of the menu was done by someone who does speak Chinese, but the translation was done by someone who is a native speaker of English.

  13. yt said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    For the translitertion of cheese, I think 起司 is more common in Taiwan than 芝士.

  14. Dan said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    Without any real evidence, I believe and support BZ's hypothesis.

  15. j2h said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    I think they were just having fun (in both Chinese and English) – maybe they even suspected that a slightly wacky menu like this would make its way onto the internet and perhaps garner them some free publicity (if any of the sites publishing it bothered to name the restaurant in question). I'm sure you've encountered jokey/playful restaurant menus in the English-speaking world – why is an establishment in Asia that does the same characterised as "inept"?

    I feel like people are too quick to judge when East Asia is involved – things that were intended playfully or satirically find their way onto the Western internet presented as incompetence or just "look at what those weirdo (Chinese/Japanese/Taiwanese/Koreans) have done now", as if Asians are incapable of humour, everything in these countries must be done 100% seriously, and if Westerners find it funny it can only be in a "laughing at them" rather than "with them" sort of way. (But maybe I'm reading too much into this)

  16. Matt said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    My theory is that the Chinese part of the menu was done by someone who does speak Chinese, but the translation was done by someone who is a native speaker of English.

    The use of "I can't find on google" vs "I can't find it on google" suggests to me someone whose native language drops object pronouns. (But it could just be something like diary-speak: "Can't find on Google, but is delicious" is quite acceptable for me in that context.)

    Also my first interpretation of "I can't find on google" was that the translator couldn't find a page with both Chinese and English renditions of the dish's name (a bilingual menu). That's usually a slightly more effective way to find acceptable-to-native-speaker English renderings of culinary terminology than just hitting up Google Translate and hoping for the best.

  17. Jim Breen said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

    Victor asked how 芝 has come to mean lawn/turf in Japanese. I haven't been able to track down the process or timing. My 漢和s mention that the original meaning was fungus, but don't go any further.

  18. Jason said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    Overall, though, this menu seems to be quite an inept way for a restaurant to present itself to the public.

    You've not eaten at a trendy restaurant lately? This is marketing genius, and almost certainly calculatedly so.

  19. Matt said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    Victor asked how 芝 has come to mean lawn/turf in Japanese. I haven't been able to track down the process or timing. My 漢和s mention that the original meaning was fungus, but don't go any further.

    I haven't been able to find any book that gives the "turf" reading without marking it "国" (i.e. Japanese), so it was probably a local innovation, or possibly Korean. It's used with the reading /siba/ in the Man'yoshu, poem 3508 (芝付乃 御宇良佐伎奈流 根都古具佐… =sibatuki no/miurasaki naru/ netukwogusa… = "The 'root=grass' in Mirasaki, in Shibatsuki… [blah blah I yearn for you]". Here it seems to be a place name, but as I understand it it's not clear where it refers to.

    There's also a /siba/ spelled 柴 in some poems, which in modern Japanese would signify a different meaning (more like brushwood/kindling)… but occasional phrases in the MYS like 道之柴草 = "miti no sibakusa" certainly seem to intend the "turf" meaning (in modern Japanese "shibakusa", where "kusa" = "grass", is basically a fancy synonym for "shiba" = "turf").

    So the word (or set of related words) /siba/ itself is at least as old as the earliest written Japanese, and we can find the spellings 柴 and 芝 in the oldest written texts. (Albeit only one example of the latter, and in an obscure part of an Eastern Old Japanese poem at that.)

    Note that elsewhere in OJ writing, 芝 is used for the syllable /si/, as is plain 之. All things considered I wouldn't be surprised if the reading /siba/ got applied to 芝 for phonetic reasons — perhaps some scribe was groping around for a way to write "/siba/ as in turf" as opposed to "/siba/ as in brushwood" and hit upon the idea of using a Chinese character with the /si/ sound plus a helpful "grass" radical.

  20. Jim Breen said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    Thank you, Matt, for that most scholarly analysis of 芝/しば/turf. So we can call it a sort of a single-kanji 当て字.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    @j2h I'm with you. It's pretty clear with the Mr. & Ms. they were intentionally being funny, at least with the English. I don't know Chinese well enough to comment on the Chinese. (That said, assuming the Chinese homophones were intentional, it would be interesting to know whether they worked bilingually, that is, Mandarin/Taiwanese; if not, the Chinese menu might present a challenge for those who think in Taiwanese.)

    A San Jose, CA, Vietnamese fusion restaurant Pho 69 has the slogan "Something hot coming to your mouth." A local paper reviewing them wondered if they realized what they were saying. Of course they did, both with the business name and the slogan. It was obviously a calculated marketing decision to bring in a hip crowd. I can't imagine how the reviewer could miss that except for what you say in your comment.

    Not that I have never been guilty of it myself. I once, to my embarrassment, defused an Asian-American friend's joke by taking it too literally and warning him of the punny meaning; of course, he had intended the punny meaning.

  22. Chas Belov said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    Correction: punny -> double entendre

  23. Joe Lee said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    The one that can't be googled is actually a Taiwanese/Hakka vegetable dish, while the word would directly translate into "Fried Water Lotus", it's actually not lotus. The plant's common English nickname is "Crested Floating Heart"

    花芝= Calamri

    You won't find it using google/bing/whatever Chinese translator because it's Taiwanese dialect written in Madrian Chinese to mimic the pronoucation. Only make sense for Taiwanese speaker.

  24. Nathan said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

    It's very possible that this menu was done by a Taiwanese person. I live in Taiwan and see menus with incorrect but homophonous characters all the time.

    Also 高麗菜 is the most common way to refer to cabbage in Taiwan. It may be something else in the mainland but here in Taiwan it is used everywhere.

  25. Yen said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 7:14 am

    I think this menu is from a vegetarian restaurant in Taiwan. I guess this menu was done by a native Taiwanese (Taking myself, a vegetarian and also a Taiwanese, as reference).
    There are many kinds of "mock food" in Taiwan. The mock food mimicking a real oyster (蚵仔) might be written as 兒仔 and a real calamari (花枝) might be written as 花芝. These acts were to tell the customers that they are vegan food.
    And did anyone tried the 炒水蓮 before? It's not like a lotus at all! Actually that is a kind of vegetable called white water snowflakes. But I personally couldn't get the meaning of it if it was on a menu. So I guess the ridiculous translation on the menu was to encourage people to give it a try.

  26. Kellen Parker said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    yt: both are quite common in Taiwan for cheese

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