And that's why Chinese poetry is so hard to translate...
Last night I got a reminder of just why translating anything Chinese into English is such an imperfect exercise, fraught with traps.
I got it while reading a menu. Yes, a menu. One of those hand-lettered signs that goes up in Chinese when the restaurant has a special dish on offer. (One of the reasons I wanted to learn Chinese in the first place was to be able to decipher these placards, which always tantalized me with their promise of "secret" dishes inaccessible to non-Chinese).
Okay, so since Lambert's programs don't allow me to put Chinese characters in posts (hint!) I will just have to give you the character by character translation of what the six characters on this menu sign said:
1.Double 2. Winter 3.Fresh 4.Lamb 5.Belly 5.Hotpot
(in Cantonese: Seung Dung Sin Yeung Laam Bo)
"Oh", says my Hong Kong Chinese friend, David. "This is a special Cantonese cold weather dish with dried mushrooms and bamboo shoots."
"Sounds delicious," I say, But how do you know it has mushrooms and bamboo shoots? There are absolutely no characters on that paper that say "bamboo" or "mushroom."
"Well, you just know!" David replies. "Double Winter" means two dried ingredients: mushrooms and bamboo. In wintertime, when it's cold like now, we can't get these two ingredients fresh, so they must be dried. That's why we call it "double winter." (Winter Mushroom + Winter Bamboo)
I start to pitch a little fit, right there on the sidewalk as we're waiting for the restaurant manager to clear us a table (the place is full of people bent over steaming hotpots, eating "double winter" specials).
"How can a foreigner ever hope to really learn Chinese! Even though I can properly read every single character on that card, I still can't translate it properly!"
David smiles. "And that's why Chinese poetry is so hard to translate."
Oh, the dish really was spectacular. Think of a lamb stew, with the meat pieces falling off the bone, in a bubbling, intensely mushroom flavored gravy.
And, by the way, there was, in addition to mushrooms, bamboo shoot and lamb, tofu and fresh water chestnuts in the pot. Not mentioned in the list of "Double Winter Fresh Lamb Belly Hotpot."
But "well, you just know" that when you order this dish, tofu and chestnuts come along as part of the deal.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Chinese language.