Lettuce in pain

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From Betchen Barber:

háoyóu xīshēngcài 蠔油西生 ("lettuce with oyster sauce")

Even without the gross mistranslation, this dish sounds bizarre enough.

Hopefully the lettuce will be feeling better if we apply dressing to the wound.

Seriously, though, how do we get from "lettuce with oyster sauce" to "lettuce in pain"?

This translation fail is not new; people have been laughing at it since at least 2006.  So far as I am aware, however, no one has ever explained how it arose.

Perhaps someone whose English was not very good was trying to translate háoyóu 蠔油 asked another person whose English was also not very good, and the latter said that háoyóu 蠔油 is a pain (to translate).  That's not a very satisfactory solution, but it's the best I can think of right now at 38,000 feet over the Pacific cramped in the back of a Boeing 777-300 and feeling quite a lot of pain.


  1. AG said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    maybe 油 inspired some sort of idea of "in paint"?

  2. rcalmy said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 8:24 am

    "Hopefully the lettuce will be feeling better if we apply dressing to the wound."

    Well played, sir.

  3. Stephen Hart said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    Vietnamese noun mam (fish sauce) is sometimes used as a salad dressing, in addition to a dipping sauce.

  4. PLR said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 11:33 am

    Is it possible the problem is with the 西生? Could someone have been translating 牺 牲 instead?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

    I'm wondering about "wilted lettuce".

  6. DMT said,

    December 3, 2015 @ 3:51 am

    VHM: "Even without the gross mistranslation, this dish sounds bizarre enough."

    Lettuce, "wilted" by boiling in water for a few seconds, with a dollop of oyster sauce as dressing, is extremely common as a side vegetable at cheap Hong Kong eateries. The wall-plaque menu shown in the photograph – including the "match two items" style of ordering and the availability of "Japanese style teriyaki chicken" – is also very typical of this sort of place, so I'm guessing the photograph is probably from HK.

    Does this help explain the mistranslation? I can't quite figure out a completely plausible story, but it may be relevant that Cantonese for "Chinese lettuce" (tong4saang1coi3 唐生菜) sounds quite similar to "lettuce in pain" (tung3saang1coi3 痛生菜). (Of course, the menu describes the vegetable on offer as "European lettuce" 西生菜 – I have to admit that the distinction between Chinese and European lettuce isn't entirely clear to me.)

  7. DMT said,

    December 3, 2015 @ 3:54 am

    Another possible association might be with tong3saang1coi3 燙生菜 "scalded lettuce."

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    I think that the suggestions of Jerry Friedman and DMT are excellent. The lettuce being "in pain" is probably related to its being wilted / withered / shrivelled / scalded. The possibility of confusion between tong4saang1coi3 唐生菜 ("Chinese lettuce") and tung3saang1coi3 痛生菜 ("lettuce in pain") is particularly attractive; even more so is tong3saang1coi3 燙生菜 ("scalded lettuce").

    As for why it's "Western lettuce", I would have to say that — for whatever reason — most of the lettuce I come across in China either really is imported from the West or advertises itself as being so. My impression is that Chinese are afraid of parasites that might lurk in local lettuce — especially since lettuce is often eaten raw (e.g., as a wrap or bed or in Western style salads) or only slightly scalded.

    I might add that I've had this very dish ("lettuce with oyster sauce") in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China many times, and it indeed is as DMT describes. I should have noted in the OP that, although this dish might sound bizarre to Westerners who have never encountered it before, people who have been to Hong Kong or China quite likely would be familiar with it.

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