Black Poplar Mushroom dumplings in Monterey Park, California (2010)
It’s no secret that menu translations can often be wildly inaccurate. This could be for any number of reasons, including the fact that some words just don’t have equivalents in other languages. While traveling, I personally just translate words the best I can and hope people understand what I mean – so I imagine everyone does the same thing with their menus.
There’s another thing to consider though, sometimes translations differ so much from the original text for practical reasons. In many cases if we were given an exact, word for word translation it might do more harm than good. Every language has names for things that require interpretation and more often than not such names require knowledge of aspects of the culture a non-native speaker just won’t have. This is just as true of English as any other language.
Take the dish from the American South called Hoppin’ John. That name doesn’t convey any of the ingredients in the dish and would likely be pretty confusing to a non-English speaker. Though if you were to just list it as black-eyed peas and rice you lose all the history and cultural significance. That’s pretty much what happens with things like the dim sum dumplings in this photo. They were on the menu in English as Mushroom Dumplings with Meat along with the Chinese name 茶树菇海棠果, which literally translates to Tea Tree Mushroom (茶树菇) Crab Apples (海棠果).
The mushrooms turn out to be a special variety known in English as Black Poplar Mushrooms, highly prized in Chinese cuisine as well as others. Crab apples in this case refers to the shape of the dumplings (especially resembling the dried version), in English this shape is often called a Beggar’s Purse.
While the name Mushroom Dumplings with Meat might avoid confusion for those of us who don’t speak Chinese, much of the beauty and nearly all the information is in the Chinese name, hiding in plain sight.