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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Digging in

It’s December 25! Time for everyone’s favorite Christmas tradition: A trip to the movies, followed by a delicious dinner of steamed dumplings, Szechuan beef, and fried rice.


Not your Christmas tradition? Then I guess you’re not Jewish.


For a variety of reasons, eating Chinese food on this holiday we don’t celebrate is a mainstay of American Jewish culture. Which is why today seems the perfect occasion to highlight an entertaining and informative article that was published last year, but which I happened across only recently: “How Jane Austen’s early Chinese translators were stumped by the oddities of 19th-century British cuisine.”


Austen’s novels have been translated into Chinese dozens of times in the past eighty-eight years, but according to UK academics Saihong Li and William Hope, it’s not easy to make nineteenth-century British food comprehensible to Chinese Janeites.


Since Chinese cooking includes few true analogues of the mince pies mentioned in Pride and Prejudice, translators have rendered the dish as “steak,” “steamed bun,” and “meat pie.” Similarly, cheese, that British staple, is little known in China because of the prevalence there of lactose intolerance. As a result, the Stilton and north Wiltshire cheeses that the Coles serve to Mr. Elton in Emma have spawned such translation errors as referring to “Stilton” as a county, Li and Hope say.


The wedding cake that Mr. Woodhouse avoids in Emma has sometimes been translated as “xĭ bĭng” (“happiness pancakes”)—small, round sugared cakes that “display a motif signifying happiness and are decorated with red silk,” Li and Hope explain. “They have been a wedding delicacy for two thousand years, whereas western-style wedding cakes are relatively new to China.” 


Meanwhile, the Christmas feast of “brawn and cold pies” described in Persuasion has posed a bigger challenge. “Brawn is a cold cut terrine or meat jelly made from a pig’s head and bones, spiced, boiled, then cooled,” Li and Hope write. “Through the decades, Chinese translators struggled to convey this notion. One took the catch-all option of ‘a variety of Christmas cakes and other food,’ others fell short with ‘pork”/“salted pork,’ while one unfortunate translated it as ‘the color brown.’ ” (Since brawn sounds absolutely disgusting, I’m inclined to cut those Chinese translators a break.)


The key to avoiding embarrassing mistakes, Li and Hope conclude, lies in promoting a more cooperative translation strategy. “The future of translation–and of mutual understanding in all fields–lies in cross-cultural partnerships between individuals,” they conclude.


I’ll raise a glass of green tea to that! Pass the spring rolls, please.

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