Bacteria, Arsenic, and Other Potentially Hazardous Delectables

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We were recently introduced to the delicacy known as "Braised Enterovirus in Clay Pot", which led to an edifying discussion about the possible role of viruses in food processing. I never would have imagined that, just a few days later, Ori Tavor would send me a photograph of a menu offering "Sautéed Wild Bacteria."

The genesis of this mistranslation is easy to explain, since JUN1 菌 can refer both to bacteria, as in XI1JUN1 细菌 ("germ, bacterium"), and to fungi, as in YE3JUN1 野菌 ("wild mushrooms"), for which we have a nice, clear Cantonese recipe here.

We all eat plenty of foods that are produced through the action of bacteria, and our health depends on the presence of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Still, the idea of "Sautéed Wild Bacteria" does not sound very appetizing!

Appetizing or not, I'd rather eat some bacteria and take my chances than consume a virus, much less ingest arsenic. Yet precisely the latter is suggested on this menu from Changchun in the northeast of China (Jilin Province), where we read: "Mix Arsenic into a Pot of Curry."

The photograph (kindly supplied by Randy Alexander) is blurred, but I think that the corresponding Chinese probably says GA1LI2 HUO3GUO1 咖喱火锅 ("Curry Hotpot"). The only connection I can think of between curry and arsenic is the horrendous poisoning that took place in Wakayama, Japan back in 1998.   Notable as that incident was, it is hard to see how it could account for the suggestion made on this menu. Randy tells me that this was the only strange translation on the menu and that it was the first item on the first page. If anyone happens to be in Changchun, you might ask the owners of the restaurant near Renmin Guangchang (People's Square) what gives.

Finally, in these two shots of a menu taken at an eatery in Shanghai (click on pictures for larger versions),

the art of mistranslation is taken to new heights. If my life depended on it, I could probably explicate every single item on the menu, but I'll limit myself to a few of the most brilliant gems.

Wherever you see "sauced justice," that is for JIANG4ZHI1 ("sauce-juice," i.e., "sauce"). One that threw me for a loop at first is "and for sand's rice sheep but vinegars" for BA1SHA1MI3KE3CU4 巴沙米可醋, until I simply read it out quickly and realized that it must stand for "balsamic vinegar." The "wind" of Europe signifies European "style." But the ne plus ultra of this extraordinarily creative menu must go to "Buddhass human relatlons roast heef them" FO2LUO2LUN2SI1 KAO3NIU2ROU4 佛羅倫斯烤牛肉 for Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The rest of the items may, if you wish, be read as a new kind of loopy, daffy (SHABULENGDENGDE) poetry.


  1. John Cowan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    Question: Why do your pinyin transcriptions SHOUT at us? It makes them hard to read, not to mention hurting my ears (a sort of synaethesia, I suppose).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

    Bill Poser asked the same question in a personal e-mail to me a couple of weeks ago. It's a practice I long ago adopted when it was not possible to do italics in e-mail, but I still wanted to distinguish between my transcriptions from foreign languages and my writing in English. Most people realize that I'm not shouting, just trying to be clear.

    But do you have a suggestion for a better solution? Is it possible to do italics in e-mail now?

  3. David Friedland said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    I just want to point out that the transcription of the ne plus ultra has a miscorrection: it's relatlons not relations, which I guess are some kind of duplicated mapping coordinates.

  4. John Laviolette said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    The usual method of doing italics or bold in email or other plaintext is to use *asterisks* and **double asterisks**. But that might be misconstrued in a linguistics-related mailing list. As would another common solution, /slashes as italics/.

  5. Robert S. Porter said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    Almost all email now uses, or at least is able to use, HTML and thus you can use italics in them. Plain text is boring and so last year.

  6. Joe said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

    Look in your email client's help files if necessary to ensure that you send emails as HTML instead of plain text. After that, you can simply use I tags to put them in italics, just like you would on the blog.

    That said, most probably send HTML by default, so just send yourself a test email with HTML markup to check. You can also find an email client that has a rich-text editor (or turn one on if yours already includes that) and it'll given an option to make text italic, bold and whatnot just like that.

    Sending HTML email has been possible for at least a decade now and probably more. Perhaps the only people unable to see it are those still using terminal email clients (e.g. Pine). Any standard webmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, etc. has HTML capabilities.

    Mind you, they came with a cost. Most clients now disable images and JavaScript by default due to security problems they caused. But they're old, well-understood problems that have been patched in any modern email client by now.

  7. M Smith said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:50 am

    Isn't wormwood poisonous? (At the top of the first picture)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    David, thank you for your correction of my miscorrection.

    Yes, M. Smith, pure wormwood oil is poisonous, but wormwood (a kind of artemisia) also has many medicinal and therapeutic uses. Unfortunately, since the top line of the menu item is cut off, I cannot tell what the equivalent word was in Chinese, and the Japanese YASAI 野菜 ("vegetables") is so vague that it doesn't provide any help.

    Judging from the mail I have received, it seems that most people have no objection to my use of CAPS to indicate transcriptions of foreign languages (indeed, some folks actually appreciate it). So, until I find a simpler solution that is equally clear in plain text and in HTML, I shall continue my long accustomed practice.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I found the use of capitals specifically for transcribing Chinese helpful. I think it would become annoying if used for long passages, or for languages I was already familiar with, but for a word or two at a time it's great.

    I am intrigued though, what do native Chinese do? For English a native speaker when writing will explain the pronunciation of words or syllables by analogy, or if they know how they'll use IPA. But when people are explaining the tribulations of Chinese translation they invariably need to explain how e.g. GAN1 is distinct from GAN3 in meaning despite being written the same (like English "lead" and "lead") and thus the confusion arises in written text. Is there a notation in Chinese for the pronunciations independently of their meaning ? Do they do the "by analogy" thing as an English speaker might?

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

    Could there be a link between "hot" and "arson" and then between "arson" and "arsenic"?

  11. MikeA said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    Please excuse the continuation of a glancing-off-topic thread, but in regard to html email, the vast majority of it is spam or malware (hence the tendency of folks who can to limit its capabilities), so it has a high probability of being junked, either by the recipients or some busy-body agent that handles their email. If the email comes from someone not on the "contact list", it is even more likely to vanish.
    FWIW. (yes, I realize that the vast majority of email _period_ is spam, but I meant that the percentages rise for html email)

  12. Giles said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

    Isn't the 干 in the first menu, which seems to be translated "dry", the character that has so frequently been mistranslated as "fuck"?

    If so, maybe we should be impressed…

  13. Bill Poser said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 4:50 am

    As Mike A says, HTML email is likely to be spam, and in any case, I don't use a browser to read email. Except in rare circumstances in which I have reason to believe that a message is something I want, if I see HTML in an email message I delete it without reading further.

    If you want to use non-ASCII characters in email, just use Unicode and either send it as an attachment or have your email program base64 encode it.

  14. MM said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    I second Andy Hollandebeck on arsenic. 'Curry' is translated as 'curry', and the only character that isn't is 'fire' (the third Chinese character).

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    Keep using CAPITALS. Although it is possible to send email in html format and thus use italics there are plenty of people who have their email client set to read html email as plain text for security reasons.

  16. Jean-Michel said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 1:46 pm


    A native Chinese speaker would most likely be writing in Chinese characters, so "gan1" might look like 干 ("dry") and "gan3" might look like 赶 ("to chase"). If there's a need to provide the pronunciation and tone — as in a dictionary or a text for beginning readers — they've got lots of options:

    1) A romanization scheme with some sort of tone marking. "gan1"/"gan3" is a valid example of this (although "gān"/"gǎn" is arguably more "proper").

    2) Zhuyin or bopomofo (mostly used in Taiwan these days), a semi-syllabary that places a tone symbol to the right of the phonetic symbols. Example: 赶 = ㄍㄢˇ (g- + -an + tone mark).

    3) A homophonous character. Example: 干 = 尶 gān ("embarassed").

    4) Fanqie or "cutting", which uses two characters to indicate the pronunciation of a different character. Example: 古 + 寒 hán = 干 gān (neither 古 nor 寒 have the same tone as 干, but their tones "combine" in such a way as to indicate the correct tone).

    5) Some other system that's come and gone with the passage of centuries, or something I'm forgetting/unaware of.

  17. J. Del Col said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 9:40 am

    At least they are free-range bacteria. We wouldn't want to have any industrially produced bugs, like the ones in yogurt.

  18. Nick Lamb said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Jean-Michel, thank you. That was fascinating.

  19. KYL said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    Bill Poser or Victor, can either of you tell us if the Japanese translations are any better than the English ones? If the Japanese translations are just as bad, then it would suggest that machine translation is to blame for all these translation issues. But if the Japanese translations are better, then that raises many more interesting questions. I seriously doubt that there are more competent Japanese speakers in China than competent English speakers.

  20. Stationary Orbit » More Language Log mistranslations said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

    […] Language Log has more […]

  21. John Cowan said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    For the record, I avoid HTML email like the plague, and I use *…* for emphasis italics but _…_ for other kinds of italics (foreign words, book titles, etc.). For example, I would write _zi4_ 'character, morpheme, syllable'. However, when blogging as opposed to emailing, I use <i>…</i> to produce real italics.

    The ingrained pseudo-synaesthetic reflex that connects CAPITALS with shouting is very strong, particularly I think in people who used email before everybody took it up. And there is plenty of experimental evidence that all-caps text is harder to read; the lack of ascenders and descenders makes it much harder to recognize words by shape.

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