How Jane Austen’s early Chinese translators were stumped by the oddities of 19th-century British cuisine

From The Conversation:

Jane Austen’s works are globally renowned, but they were unknown in China until 1935 when two different translations of Pride and Prejudice were published. Today, her novels are increasingly popular and have been translated into Chinese many times – notably there have been 60 different retranslations of Pride and Prejudice.

Translators face the creative balancing act of remaining faithful to the source text while also ensuring that the translation is a smooth, informative read. One intriguing task for translators of Austen has been how to describe the 19th-century British food featured in the many convivial sequences that shed light on characters through their social interaction.

How do you get an early Chinese reader of Austen’s work in the 1930s to understand what rout-cakes are and why Mrs Elton in Austen’s Emma considers poor versions of these a sign of a bad host? The world was not as globalised as it is now and information not so accessible.

We found this fascinating and so analysed a body of Chinese translations of Austen’s work from 1935 onwards to assess the effectiveness of the translations of food culture during Austen’s era. The results were decidedly mixed.

Elusive equivalents

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennett contrasts her girls’ upbringing with that of their neighbour, Charlotte Lucas, who assists in cooking “the mince pies”. The notion of a pastry dish containing fruit, meat or vegetables is difficult to convey in Chinese as there are only limited similarities with Chinese “bĭng” which are wheat flour-based items resembling flatbreads, biscuits, or pancakes.

Although early mince pies contained meat, they became sweeter and more fruit-based in the 18th century as sugar imports increased. However, Chinese translators conveyed “mince pies” in different ways, including “steak”, “steamed bun”, and “meat pie”, revealing translation errors or strategies such as the use of Chinese equivalents.

The two wartime translations, made during Japan’s invasion of China from 1937 to 1945 of “mince pie” were “steak” and “steamed bun” but in mitigated circumstance the translators probably had limited access to dictionaries during this period.

Christmas is frequently mentioned in Persuasion. Austen described early 19th-century Christmas meals as occasions when there were “brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel”. Brawn is a cold cut terrine or meat jelly made from a pig’s head and bones, spiced, boiled, then cooled.

Again, 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 colour brown”.

China’s increasing familiarity with western food over the years has encouraged more globalised approaches to food translation.

Cakes exemplify this point, being referenced in Emma with regard to Mr Woodhouse whose “own stomach could bear nothing rich”. However, China’s distinctive varieties of cake are markedly different, ranging from “yuè bĭng” (“mooncakes” – pastry cakes with fillings such as lotus seed paste) to “xĭ bĭng” (“happiness pancakes”). The latter was used as a domesticated translation to render Austen’s references to wedding cakes into Chinese.

“Happiness pancakes” are small, round, and made of flour, sesame seed and white sugar. They display a motif signifying happiness and are decorated with red silk. They have been a wedding delicacy for 2,000 years, whereas western-style wedding cakes are relatively new to China. Nevertheless, the newly coined, cosmopolitan concept of “jiéhūn dàngāo” (“wedding cake”) has materialised in recent translations.

Different diets

The diets of British and Chinese people are differentiated by foods such as cheese. Austen periodically mentions cheese, for example in Emma when Mr Elton describes a party with “the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the butter, the celery, the beet-root and all the dessert”. Such references are problematic for Chinese translators because of cultural differences.

Whereas Britain produces 700 varieties of cheese, the product is less widespread in China due to lactose intolerance. Here, loss of meaning and misinterpretation undermined the translators’ work. Stilton was referred to as a “county” in some translations.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

4 thoughts on “How Jane Austen’s early Chinese translators were stumped by the oddities of 19th-century British cuisine”

  1. … But why translate them at all? Why not just leave those words as-is and then use footnotes or endnotes? If you can’t accurately convey a concept or item from one language to the next, why not just annotate it? Penguin Books readily annotates Jane Austen et al.

    In English, we put foreign words in italics, surely there’s an equivalent style in Chinese. It’s not as if they would never need to make translations from other languages.

    To me, part of the fun of works in translation is learning different aspects of the other culture. Characters eating squab? Playing bocce? Okay, I want to know that’s a thing they do “over there” or “back then.” I would be annoyed if a book from China has a woman wearing a cheongsam, but it’s translated as a “dress” or a “frock” because those terms doesn’t get the point across. Or the shalwar kameez rendered as “tunic and trousers,” and so forth.

    We handle kippers and crumpets and borscht; it should work in the opposite direction, too. When a word has a 1-1 equivalent in another language, translate it. If it doesn’t, don’t mislead me by calling the thing by what it isn’t.

    • I think it may be a problem with choosing the correct Chinese characters to represent the English words, J.

      It wouldn’t help an English speaker to insert precise Chinese characters in an English translation of a Chinese book.

    • Sometimes Chinese will choose the characters that sound like the foreign word (like Wade-Giles tried to do for Chinese; for English speakers, pin yin is NOT phonetic at all).

      China Law Blog has run some fun articles about choosing trade marks in China for Western companies; basically, you can try to match the sound, or try to translate the meaning, OR try to sort-of match the sound with with characters that convey a meaning.

      You definitely need a lot of knowledge; for example, moon cakes aren’t just any pastry; although recently they have become available year round at my local Chinese bakeries, traditionally they are eaten at the fall harvest festival (Moon Festival). So if you use Moon Cake to translate Cake, you’ll be adding a lot of unintended connotations.

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