A week or so back, Victor Mair posted at Language Log under the title of Google me with a fire spoon. It’s all about the problems of machine translation. The post grabbed my attention because I love fire spoons.
In case you’re not familiar with 火勺 (huǒsháo), this is what they typically look like:
Tasty 火勺！Best dipped in soy sauce or vinegar and ideal accompaniment for your 羊汤 (yángtāng – mutton broth). In case you were wondering, the texture is much like that of sausage roll; a crisp, flakey, savoury pastry filled with meat. It’s usually 清真 (qīngzhēn – halal) food, so the meat is either mutton or beef.
Anyway, over at Language Log, Victor says:
Aside from all of the other gaffes, large and small, the most serious lexical problem is what to do with huǒsháo 火勺. Literally, the two characters do mean “fire spoon,” but that doesn’t make any sense in the context where the term appears. Some native (but non-local) readers of the sign suspect that huǒsháo 火勺 must be a miswriting for huǒshāo 火燒, which does indeed signify a type of flat cake, though it is usually said to be fried in a pan, unlike huǒsháo 火勺, which is baked in an oven.
Obviously, we’re all aware of the horrors of literal, direct translation. That just won’t do! But sometimes I suspect we’re afraid of something. Sometimes I suspect that we’d rather suck all of the colour and life out of the language, than risk the chance of the reader not quite understanding.
火勺 are not a common snack. They’re considered a local speciality in a number of locations. I encountered them in the big city of 铁岭 (Tiělǐng), in the northeastern province of Liaoning. The Language Log example comes from Dalian, also in Liaoning.
I think it’s safe to say, most Chinese speakers have never seen, tasted or even heard of 火勺. The theory that 火勺 is adpapted from 火烧 (huǒshao), itself not a terribly familiar kind of baked cake, is certainly plausible, but I suspect it’s a connection that’s not going to spring to mind on first hearing the term.
Wàidìrén: Wǒ èle! Nǐmen zhèli yǒu shénme hǎochīde?
Outsider: I’m hungry! Is there anything good to eat around these parts?
Běndìrén: Yǒu huǒsháo.
Local: There’re fire spoons.
Wàidìrén: Huǒ shénme?
Outsider: Fire what?
Běndìrén: ‘Huǒsháo’ jiùshì yīzhǒng xiǎo shāobing, yòu xiāng yòu cuìde, yǒu ròuxiànde.
Local: ‘Fire spoons’ are a kind of little baked pancake. They’re crisp and tasty, with meat inside.
Wàidìrén: Hēhē, ‘huǒsháo’ a! Tīngqǐlái hǎochī, nà wǒmen yīdìng yào chángyīcháng.
Outsider: Haha, ‘fire spoons!’ They sound good. We must give them a try.