Of cream puffs and shoe polish

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Martin Delson sent in this interesting puzzler:

I'm participating in an international virtual book-club where all participants are bilingual in German and English. For some reason, the book that the group chose to read is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Wikipedia tells me the Japanese title is "Konbini ningen (コンビニ人間)".
A pair of sentences, not far into the book, reads as follows in the English translation
"The first at the cash register was the same little old lady who had been the first through the door. I stood at the till, mentally running through the manual as she put her basket containing a choux crème, a sandwich, and several rice balls down on the counter."

One of the participants in the book-club chose to read it in German translation, where they found the following sentences:
"Die vornehm wirkende ältere Dame mit dem Stock stellte als Erste ihren Korb an meiner Kasse ab. Er enthielt Schuhcreme, Sandwiches, und mehrere Onigiri."

[my translation: The elegant seeming elderly woman with the cane was the first to put her basket at my register. It contained shoe polish, sandwiches, and several onigiri.]

 Puzzled about the "Schuhcreme", the reader of the German translation looked at the English translation, and told the group that the English was "choux crème" (not "choux à la crème").
How did that shoe polish get into the German? It's clear that the German was translated from Japanese, not from the English. Is the Japanese original a transliteration (in kana) of choux crème that was then mistranslated into German? Or what?

I'm not looking at the Japanese original of the novel, but I'm reasonably confident that this is what happened.  The French term choux crème ("cream puff") was transcribed as shūkurīmu シュークリーム in Japanese, which is the standard way it is borrowed.  The Japanese to English translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, expertly caught that and rendered it in English as choux crème.  Since that French term has been directly borrowed into English, diacritical and all, her translation is perfect.

The German translator did not accurately catch the intended meaning of shūkurīmu シュークリーム in Japanese, so they just went with the sound.  "Shoe polish / cream" is equal to Schuhcreme in German, which in kana may be transcribed as — you guessed it — shūkurīmu シュークリーム. 


The usual translation of German Schuhcreme in Japanese is kutsu migaki 靴磨き ("shoe polish").


Selected readings


  1. Lukas Daniel Klausner said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 8:48 am

    »Schuhcreme« wouldn't be シュークリーム in katakana, though, it would be シュークレーム.

  2. Jim Breen said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 6:16 pm

    Re: "… Ginny Tapley Takemori, expertly caught that and rendered it in English as choux crème. Since that French term has been directly borrowed into English, diacritical and all, her translation is perfect."

    I am not sure I agree. The usual translation of シュークリーム in English is "cream puff", according to the four Japanese-English dictionaries I checked. According to Google, cream puff is orders of magnitude more common in English than either choux crème or choux creme.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 6:32 pm

    Lukas Daniel Klausner raises the issue of シュークリーム vs シュークレーム. In the 2007 Google Japanese n-grams the former gets a count of 749,467 and the latter just 70. Googling for examples of シュークレーム brings up only cream puffs. One of the sites using シュークレーム is a cake shop in Kyoto "Madam Chou creme" (https://madame-chou.com/)

  4. Josh R. said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 7:21 pm

    That is a shocking mistranslation. Anyone with a modicum of Japanese ability who has spent time in Japan should be familiar with シュークリーム, and able to translate accordingly (I think either cream puff or choux à la crème would be acceptable). Sure, every English-speaking ex-pat (and I guess the German ones, as well) gets thrown a little when they first encounter the word. But for a translator, even in the (highly unlikely) event that they have never encountered the word before, the "shoe cream/Shuhcreme" impulse should have sent up red flags requiring further research. Even a check of Google Translate renders シュークリーム as "Windbeutel." I am even tempted to consider bad faith on the part of the German translator.

  5. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 10:50 pm

    I don't know what the English word is, because I didn't see much French patisserie in West Philly, but what we have in Japan is this:


  6. Lukas Daniel Klausner said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 4:16 am

    @Jim Breen: Yeah, that does not really surprise me ­– I don't think the German word “Schuhcreme” is written in katakana very often, and the French “choux creme” would also be writtein in katakana the same way (which explains the cream puff examples you find when googling).

    My main point was: A German–Japanese translator should now that the German pronunciation of “Creme” cannot possibly written as クリーム in katakana.

  7. Doreen said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 9:37 am

    I agree with Jim Breen that "choux crème" is not the "perfect" translation. It seems the translator chose a false friend. I'd also call the item a cream puff.

  8. Andreas said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 1:54 pm

    Apparently the German translation was handled by Ursula Gräfe, who is probably one of the most prolific and well-regarded German translators of Japanese literary works, which makes this mistake seem all the more baffling. One doesn't even need to spend time in Japan to realize how obsessed the Japanese are with their シュークリーム. They pop up fairly frequently in TV dramas, novels, anime, manga, and even video games. I find it somewhat hard to believe that a translator as experienced as her would be entirely unfamiliar with the word.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 3:38 pm


    I wonder if an editor "corrected" her.

  10. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 4:28 pm

    "Since that French term has been directly borrowed into English,"

    Not in any English I've had contact with. They're cream puffs, and the French, meaning "cabbage cream" (due to the shape of the pastry), is virtually never used. I've read Convenience Store Woman in the English translation, as it happens. I don't own a copy and I don't remember the passage – but I do remember the character and the level of her education and the sophistication of her diction, as well as the store she worked in (like a 7-11 or a Wawa, although maybe a bit nicer) – and the American equivalent of this character would certainly say cream puff, which is what the packaging of the equivalent American product would have on the label- see, e.g., https://mageenews.com/recall-of-cream-puffs-sold-at-costco-safeway-shoprite/

    PS- I did some poking around, and found some Japanese packaged cream puffs that have "cream puff" in English on the label. Interestingly, this English language site about Japan uses "cream puff" but also "choux." https://soranews24.com/2022/04/09/in-the-search-for-the-perfect-crunchy-cream-puff-we-try-beard-papas-new-cookie-topped-choux/

    PPS- And there are some English language cooking sites that have recipes for Japanese "shu creams."

    PPPS- US packaging on a convenience store-level product would probably say creme puff not cream puff because the use of the word "cream" is strictly regulated by the FDA but you can call anything "creme." The filling in a product that was formulated to be shelf-stable for weeks would probably not qualify for the word "cream."

  11. John Swindle said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 5:33 pm

    She read the original, saw the shoe polish in her mind, and wrote what she saw. Either it was a funny mistake—by an eminent translator! who surely couldn’t make a funny mistake! must have been kidnapped by editors or Martians!—or for all we know the shoe polish was in the original.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 6:33 pm

    When I travelled around Japan, I often came upon outlets of a chain called Beard Papa's selling delicious, hot cream puffs, and that's what they called them. (Crowds were usually lined up in queues to buy them.) Looking around on maps, I see that there are many Beard Papa's cream puff franchises in America and in other countries.


    Beard Papa's (ビアード・パパ) is an international chain of cream puff stores started in Japan, owned by Muginoho Co., Ltd. (株式会社麦の穂). Their slogan is "Fresh and natural cream puffs". Beard Papa's has over 250 stores in Japan, and over 400 worldwide in 15 countries and territories.



  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 6:43 pm

    "Chou(x)" is widely known in the pastry business in America and elsewhere, and I have bought cream puffs designated as "choux" outside of France. As my friends will attest, I am a pastry freak, especially for anything having cream in or on it.

  14. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 6:48 pm

    Re: The usual translation of German Schuhcreme in Japanese is kutsu migaki 靴磨き ("shoe polish").

    靴磨き in Japanese would be either "the act of polishing shoes" or "the one who polishes (others') shoes by profession".

    The black or brown (or of other colors) creamy stuff for polishing shoes is called 靴クリーム (kutsu kuriimu).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 6:50 pm

    Thanks for the correction, Hiroshi.

  16. Terry Hunt said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 8:09 pm

    For what it's worth, although this elderly Brit would, on seeing the pastry item in question (likely in a "tea shop", "cake shop" or "bakery"), think of it as a "cream puff", he would (and did, while reading the post) also immediately understand "choux crème" and might even expect to see that term used in a more upmarket (in Britain) establishment more likely called a "restaurant" or "pâtisserie".

  17. Akito said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 11:25 pm

    "The black or brown (or of other colors) creamy stuff for polishing shoes is called 靴クリーム (kutsu kuriimu)."

    Or kutsuzumi (靴墨), by people of my generation (70s) or older.

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 2:33 pm

    VHM: I am a pastry freak

    Ich bin ein Berliner!

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