Literally

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:

火勺

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.

A conversation:

外地人:我饿了!你们这里有什么好吃的?
Wàidìrén: Wǒ èle! Nǐmen zhèli yǒu shénme hǎochīde?
Outsider: I’m hungry! Is there anything good to eat around these parts?

本地人:有火勺。
Běndìrén: Yǒu huǒsháo.
Local: There’re fire spoons.

外地人:火什么?!
Wàidìrén: Huǒ shénme?
Outsider: Fire what?

本地人:‘火勺’就是一种小烧饼,又香又脆的,有肉馅的。
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.

外地人:呵呵,‘火勺’啊!听起来好吃,那我们一定要尝一尝。
Wàidìrén: Hēhē, ‘huǒsháo’ a! Tīngqǐlái hǎochī, nà wǒmen yīdìng yào chángyīcháng.
Outsider: Haha, ‘fire spoons!’ They sound good. We must give them a try.

4 thoughts on “Literally

  1. My first reaction was also that it’s a misspelling of 火烧, which we have up in Yanqing, where there’s even a village I pass semi-regularly called 火烧营. But the picture and your description make it clear that although the two fire somethings may be similar, they’re different enough to warrant different names. Our 火烧 generally don’t have a filling, although you can buy 火烧加肉, in which case they’re virtually identical to 肉夹馍.

    “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.”

    Agreed. When the subject comes up, because they stand their looking all uncomfortable because there must be an English Word for everything, I tell my students, look, if it’s purely Chinese just use the Chinese name for it because there won’t be an English name. We have rice, noodles, and dumplings because these things, in some for or another, are common to a wide variety of countries. We say kung pao chicken because apparently all foreigners are legally bound by some UN Security Council declaration or another to be madly in love with that particular dish. We say vodka and sake because it’s just easier and more interesting to borrow the foreign word for foreign things. And considering every language merrily borrows from every other language it comes in contact with, why not keep this tradition happily chugging along?

  2. Somewhere in deepest darkest NYC:

    中国人:我饿了。你们这儿有什么好吃的?
    Zhōngguórén: Wǒ è le! Nǐmen zhèr yǒu shénme hǎochī de?

    美国人:有热狗。
    Měiguórén: Yǒu règǒu.

    中国人:热什么?我以为你们老外不吃狗肉啊!
    Zhōngguórén: Rè shénme? Wǒ yǐwéi nǐmen lǎowài bù chī gǒuròu a!

    美国人:呵呵,不是狗肉,是香肠夹在面包里。
    Měiguórén: Hēhē, bù shì gǒuròu, shì xiāngcháng jiā zài miànbāo li.

    中国人:噢,哈哈,听起来好吃,我们一定要尝一尝。
    Zhōngguórén: Ō, hāhā, tīngqǐlái hǎochī, wǒmen yīdìng yào chángyīcháng.

  3. “When the subject comes up, because they stand their looking all uncomfortable because there must be an English Word for everything, I tell my students, look, if it’s purely Chinese just use the Chinese name for it because there won’t be an English name.”

    This happens a lot. An unfortunate side effect is that my coworkers now have the impression that America has way fewer things (types of food, for instance) than China does. The sighs of misplaced pity are starting to get to me.

    -Peter