Lost in Translation: The “Hungry for Gold” Edition

Throughout my travels, I’ve come across a heady amount of signs, ads, and menus lost in translation.  Though it’s more fun when I’m able to read the original language, too, it’s very easy to bowl me over with copy that was clearly pasted into an online translator, and then pasted verbatim onto whatever deliverable for which it was being prepared.

Having spent much of my overseas time in East Asia, I can cheekily say that Japan and China share the gold medal for the volume and quality of their Engrish.  However, if I had to nominate two favorites – one from each country – I think it would be these.

Let’s start with China.

In Guangzhou, one of my favorite places to wander and dine is the neighborhood of Xiaobei, known for its population of folks from all around Africa, as well being a de facto hub for Islam.  The extraordinary amount of trade and commerce that occurs in this area, the seething relationship between African expats and locals, and the diverse food options all contribute to making it a unique part of the city, nay, country to visit.

In general, I would go there when hungry, either to get a bite of something Turkish, or for some superb Uyghur bread, called nan, covered in sesame or sunflower seeds:

To get back on topic, on the second floor of the same restaurant where I’d buy the nan, I would get mixed noodles with a cumin-laced soup, and a couple of kebabs.

The menu, however, had already made up its mind about who I was:

First of all, this one is so amusing in that they even got the Chinese wrong.  Whereas the Chinese says 馄饨 (húntun), or wonton, their translation is of the word 混沌 (hùndùn), which alternatively refers to a chaos that existed before earth.

In other words, mentally dense.

For you see, the character 混 means to mix/blend, and the character 沌 is chaotic/murky.  Somehow, when you combine the two, you get sucked up by Chinese creationist theory.  —

As for Japan, it’s a shorter story, but no less risible.

After arriving in the port city of Takamatsu, I started to feel peckish.  Yes, I would eat their famed Sanuki udon later that day, but for the time being, a Japanese bakery was in the cards.

For twenty years, I’ve been a fan of Japanese bakeries, starting with the corn kernel-stuffed buttery loaves, and right up to the tingly “mapo” roll found last year.

But then, I’ve never encountered this:

Even at a bakery named after a Scottish nursery rhyme, I’m still confused.

Is there an explanation?  Yes.  Somewhat.

The name of the bread is – wait for it – translated correctly.  クリーミ (kuriimi) is creamy, and ソフト (sofuto) is shorthand for software.  But,       ソフト also means soft.  Of course, the folks who printed up this label – whose description reads as a “moist and soft bread with custard cream folded inside” – would have chosen more wisely – though less memorably for marketing purposes – if they had gone with the Japanese word for soft,
柔らかい (yawarakai).


Would you have put these two entries in your pantheon of Engrish?  Which would be your two candidates?

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

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Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

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But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Language Learning on the Road, Guanajuato-Style (Mexico)

And you thought you came here to learn Spanish…

On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.

マジですか (maji desu ka- really?)

Is it that hordes of newlywed Japanese tourists are lining up to consummate their marriage at El Callejón del Beso (aka The Alley of the Kiss)?

違います! (chigaimasu – wrong!)

It’s all about the auto industry.

On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)

GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.

Thus, with the increase in Japanese car firms in the state came the need for Japanese engineers, technicians, and executives, some with families. In 2016, a Japanese consulate opened in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, to serve the thousands of recent expats in Guanajuato and nearby states. Since 2009, more than 80 Japanese companies have been established in Guanajuato alone, hence the need for a consulate.

Now, given that Mexico is also known for coffee, perhaps coffee ramen isn’t too far off?