"Academician who survived Stalin's purges… fish"

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Dmitriy Genzel sent in this photograph of an item on a Chinese menu:

(From here.)

The name of the dish in Chinese reads:

hóngshāo / qīngdùn èyú 红烧/清炖鄂鱼

Before tackling the bewildering Russian, we need to translate the Chinese, but we can't do that until first clearing up two points:

  1. This dish comes either hóngshāo 红烧 ("braised") or qīngdùn 清炖 ("stewed") — the slash indicates this option.

2. Èyú 鄂鱼 is a common error (173,000 ghits) for the perfectly homophonous èyú 鳄鱼 (6,110,000 ghits).  Èyú 鳄鱼 is easy to understand; it means "crocodile*", and that's what is intended for this dish.  Èyú 鄂鱼 is difficult to make sense of, since è 鄂 is a short, alternative name for the province of Hubei, which is reflected in the English translation of the dish on the menu.  This error must have thrown the Russian translator completely off track, and that is why we have the totally bizarre "Aкадемик, переживший сталинские гонения GongShao/QingDun рыбы" ("Academician who survived Stalin's purges GongShao/QingDun Fish").

We needn't worry about the "GongShao/QingDun" inserted in the Russian, for that is merely the Romanization of hóngshāo 红烧 ("braised") / qīngdùn 清炖 ("stewed"), but with a bit of quirkiness to make life interesting:  inappropriate use of intersyllabic capital letters and the influence of Cyrillic transcriptional "г" (i.e., "g") for "h".

As to where the "Aкадемик, переживший сталинские гонения… рыбы" came from, your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect that somebody was in a playful mood when they dreamed it up.

*Èyú 鳄鱼 is rendered as "crocodile; alligator; cayman" in English.  I will leave it to the zoologists on the list to thrash out which of these creatures is the one in question.


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

    A little Googling finds the Russian phrase appearing in translations of some dialogue from the UK TV series "Black Books." (The character Bernard describes the convoluted plot of the children's book he's writing: "It couldn't be simpler. You've got the academic who survived the Stalinist purges and is now having flashbacks to that time…"). Perhaps the translator is a fan of British sitcoms?

    The "Black Books" line comes around 2:40 in this video (from the 2004 episode "Elephants and Hens").

    (I'm reminded of the Iraqi meatballs labeled with the seemingly Beatle-esque message, "Paul is dead.")

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 9:38 pm

    Crocodile? alligator? C'est cayman la même chose.

  3. K. Chang said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

    I've always wondered how much British comedy, esp. old ones, were consumed by the Chinese audience, and got into the online translator phrase dictionaries some how. I've been told that there's an actual hotel called Fawlty Towers somewhere in China. It was on a certain "laowei goes to China" show I can't recall the exact name at the moment.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 11:55 pm

    From Rostislav Berezkin:

    1. Cyrillic is Хуншао циндунь эюй

    2. Жареный в соевом соусе (that stands for "hongshao", you cannot translate in with one word in Russian) и тушеный крокодил.

    3. I guess that Russian translation was got with the use of electronic translator.
    "Hongshao" may be interpreted as something like "the red terror", "qingdun" — "correction" (compare with zhengdun), "eyu" — "Russian remnants" (but on the whole, it's complete nonsense, both in Chinese
    and in precise Russian translation, and the words are not even homonyms with "the scholar who exprienced Red oppression" in Chinese at all)

    4. Academik, perezhivshii stalinskie goneniia (Library of Congress transcription).

  5. Michael Moszczynski said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 4:42 am

    A little googling turned up an interesting result: this page (http://www.dgperson.com/ru/article/39.html) which contains the phrase about the akademik and appears to be translated automatically from Chinese, showing that strange mix of Russian and CamelCase Pinyin. The original Chinese is here: http://www.dgperson.com/zh/article/39.html.

    I don't read Chinese, but the sentence that corresponds to the 'akademik' phrase also contains the character '鄂'!

    "Russian": Академик, переживший сталинские гонения, а легенды кыргызстану Fei вот "QinHuai восемь стрип" является одним из директоров малых Wan.

    Chinese: 而传说董鄂妃就是“秦淮八艳”之一的董小宛。她一腔爱意,所作的董糖还成为南京的名点。

    Maybe this can shed some light?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 7:30 am

    @Michael Moszczynski:

    It's amazing that you found those pages.

    It's true that the one in Russian does include the part about surviving Stalinist purges, but it doesn't mention the academician.

    В ShunZhi император скончался в Fei скучая по кыргызстану, переживший сталинские гонения

    The corresponding passage in the original Chinese is about an emperor who became disenchanted with the mundane world from pining for a beloved concubine who had died from illness. The character 鄂 is part of her name. The notion of "mundane world" is expressed here as hóngchén 红尘 ("red dust"), a typical Buddhist metaphor. The "red" of "red dust" may have triggered the bit about Stalinist purges, but they are not mentioned in the Chinese text.


    Incidentally, the Russian "translation" also mentions Kyrgyzstan, but that's not in the Chinese text either.

  7. FM said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 8:44 am

    @Michael and Victor:

    You've found two passages in this text that both appear to have the name of this princess, and where the Russian also has Kyrgyzstan and (in one, an academician) who survived Stalin's purges. This suggests the following correspondence:
    董 – Kyrgyzstan
    鄂 – surviving Stalin's purges, possibly as an academician
    Moral of the story – ?????

  8. FM said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 8:46 am

    sorry, concubine

  9. Usually Dainichi said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    I want to make some 鳄鱼-俄语(éyǔ, Russian language) homophony-modulo-tones joke, but my Mandarin skills and creativity fail me.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    According to Wikipedia, the only crocodilian native to China is the Chinese Alligator, so I'll suggest that the correct translation is "alligator".

    Also, the article on that species says that although it's almost extinct in the wild, it's common in captivity. "In several restaurants and food centers in China's booming areas, young and premature alligators are allowed to roam free with their mouths taped shut.[29] They are subsequently killed for human consumption as, in China, alligator meat is thought to cure colds and prevent cancer.[29]" The citation is to a National Geographic article.

    (I don't think "premature" is the right word, and is a food center what I call a grocery store?)

  11. Ivan said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 10:09 am

    The word “гонения” means “persecutions”, not “purges”.

  12. JB said,

    October 3, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    Speaking of crocodiles, alligators, and extinct Chinese water reptilians, the character 鼉 always raised eyebrows or demanded an explanation: it's usually only found in martial arts moves these days…

  13. JQ said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 4:03 am

    I suspect the error of writing 鄂 when one means 鳄 would not be so common if 鱷 had not been simplified in this manner.

    Incidentally, a Shandong native once insisted to me that 噩 et. al were pronounced è, whereas 咢 et. al were pronounced ngè. I said that as far as I knew, Cantonese retains the ng initial for both sets of characters.

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