Wednesday, October 17, 2012

English Adventures in Taiwan Supermarkets

Caveat: I hesitated before writing this post, because I don’t want to appear to be making fun of people having trouble with English. I know that that every time I say something in Chinese, I make more numerous and more ridiculous errors than these. 

Yet there is a difference. In many countries including Taiwan, English is considered more as a decoration than as a way to impart information. Thus people blithely name companies, design packages, and commission neon signs with complete disregard for whether the English actually carries any meaning. Even for public or official purposes, they never double-check with a “native speaker”.

Every visitor notices with relish the surreal quality of the ambient English. Despite good intentions, the locals have an incredible tendency not just for getting it wrong, but for doing so spectacularly and memorably.

The simplest errors are small mistakes in spelling, although these can have a large effect. While snake is occasionally eaten in Taiwan, and there is even a Snake Alley featuring these restaurants, “snack” was obviously meant in this aisle marker. Likewise, in the second photo for “Smowdrop” cookies, the small deviation from “Snowdrop” makes the word peculiarly unappetizing.

SMOWDROP Square Cake Store

Many foods do not have regular English names, and strangeness creeps in when attempting a translation. These small, whole fish are frequently encountered in Taiwan, but this was not a good name for them:

Spinach Soup with Silver Fish

"Silver fish" sounds decidedly unpleasant, but the second attempt turned out even worse:

Everyone loves their wontons to be full of larvae.

Déjà vu: Sometimes the humor derives when a package is a clone of a more famous product.

Separated at Birth?

Look familiar?

Since the use of English is decorative, there is a tendency to use fancy words, resulting in severe thesaurus abuse. 

A hectograph is a type of mimeograph that uses a non-edible gel to copy stencils. 

"Chocolate Chip" must have sounded too common.

I am guessing that the “Happily Times” in this “House Drean” were meant to be ‘sweet’, but they came up with “treacly”.

Sometimes it is not easy to discern the original thought behind the translation, resulting is some of the most bewildering examples, such as this brand of hot dogs. Even the Chinese part is somewhat confused, assuring us both of “Japanese-style flavor” and “Fresh European spices”.

Don’t you want to bite into an Emulsion brand hot dog?

The English might be technically correct but still lame, such as using “House of Steamed Potato” as a brand name. The Chinese version sounds slightly better. By the way, why the post mark? 

House of Steamed Potato

Yappy Puffs—Take Easy!

Some brand names are just plain rude:

This example might have originated in Europe—no stranger itself to eccentric English. 

I’m not sure what can explain this picture—these peanut butter cookies have no cheese of any type in the ingredients.

Despite limited success with short words and phrases, designers frequently try their luck with more extended passages:

As always, click to enlarge.

“Sweat” for “sweet” was an unfortunate mistake on these chocolates. Is Volunteer’s Day really Valentine’s Day?

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this last picture, but I find it amusing. It reminds me of the lyrics “Eat a plate of fine pig’s knuckles, and the undertaker chuckles” from the old song Some Little Bug.

Do you want a knuckle sandwich?

I find it fascinating how mistakes made in rendering a second language reveal the mindset and characteristics of the speakers attempting to use it. Sometimes they employ their own language patterns substituting English words, which rarely works. Other times they try to follow an English rule, but get into trouble with English idiom—some words for example have a correct basic meaning but cannot be used to describe foods. 

Taiwan, like most countries, is a synthesis of many cultures and languages, and slip-ups like these remind us that language should be used with a sense of fun, and not to make judgments against people.

All photos by the author; none have been edited or modified.


  1. Dear Jim - I think that I would have great difficulty knowing what to buy in the Taiwan supermarkets - Yappy Puffs sound as if they should be for the dog. I love 'treacly happily times', but definitely no thank you to a knuckle sandwich.
    I find it amusing visiting supermarkets even in Europe. I wrote a post about one in Norway in August 2011 called Helgø a supermarket? which you might find amusing too.

    1. Hello Rosemary, I was utterly fascinated by your Helgø post. They definitely break my "one taxidermy limit" rule--although for supermarkets I might make that a "zero limit". Helgø provides the surreal element through decor rather than the products, but both are examples of perspective gained when traveling. Here is the link:

  2. haha, laugh my a_ _ off!! Love this post, Jim! Very clever and hilarious. I see this often in the U.S. as well. There is a Taiwanese noodle soup restaurant I frequent. Some of my favorites: slippery fat noodles, jelly fungus dessert (quite good!), congealed blood congee :(
    Great photos. Perhaps you'll try everything shown, and do a follow up post.

    1. Hi Loi, Most of these were items I purchased. The "square cookies" (方塊酥) are a tradition in Taiwan and are one of my favorites. The other snack foods were generally o.k., but not too exciting. The Kaiser imitation Hershey's was inedible, but the company has since come out with some pretty good dark chocolates.

      I don't eat pork, so I'll never know about the hot dogs or the knuckle. I don't like those little fish, and also don't normally buy that kind of frozen prepared food, so I snapped those photos in the market.

  3. Sounds familiar, but it's by no means as bad here. The only area where it all goes completely wrong is in advertising, when there really is no excuse not to get a native English speaker to point out that what is proposed is meaningless. For example, Bangkok's new city motto:

    "Bangkok, glorious as if created by angels, the administration centre, beautiful temples, glittering palaces, the capital of Thailand," is the new motto for the city, unveiled yesterday by Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

    1. Hello Columnist, Taiwan has had some similar slogans, although none so grandiose as Bangkok's. After a while, it tends to just wash over you, so you don't even bother to record it any more. Usually those municipal efforts are short-lived; the city pays a fortune to blazon them everywhere, but a few months later it is all gone.

  4. This is fabulous! My sons like to shop at HMart, an Asian grocery north of Boston, and we have great fun reading the translations. Your examples are wonderful.

    1. Hi Jen, I love the Asian groceries in America because they have so much variety. The labels are amusing, but the real fun is in exploring new products.

  5. Hello, Parnassus - I enjoyed lingering over all the packaging and like you, am perplexed that there appear to be no English-speaking consultants. I lived for a while on Okinawa, and my favorite sign there (spelled correctly) was Hilton Hotel & Screen Door Company.

    1. Hello Mark, All my time in Taiwan, I have never felt that anyone thought less of me because of my poor Chinese. Perhaps this attitude carries over--since they do not expect people to judge them by their English mistakes, they have less reason to have their translations vetted.

      I love the sign you mention. I don't know what kind of business it really led to, but here there are all kinds of odd combinations, such as the store that sold half cell phones and half socks.

  6. This is absolutely hilarious! I adore your posts with these fractured English translations on packaging and such. Most amusing. I used to find the translations of instructions for goods bought at Pier One long ago highly amusing, and I am glad to find such translations are alive and well where you live. Thanks for this continuing series -- do please keep your delighted readers coming back for more! Reggie

  7. Hello Reggie, I am glad you liked these, although I would have guessed that something like the Adelina Patti portrait would have been more in your line. I really should take a camera with me everywhere, because one never knows when one is about to encounter something particularly bizarre. I intend to include some odd signs in my Taipei Roundup series, for which I have another installment planned soon.

  8. Dear Jim
    Thank you very much for your kind comment! In Greece, the climate is actually favours the production of many vegetables and fruits. We try to use the products of local farmers and do not buy from supermarkets packaged food. Seeing in your post how easily the words can be misinterpreted. I think that it is more convenient to use the language of the country which consume the products.
    Have a nice day

    1. Hello Olympia, It is true that names of foods not not often translate easily from one language or culture to the next, resulting in new names that are confusing or ridiculous. I like your solution of just keeping the original names--although even this way often gets us into trouble.

      The important thing is that people are willing to try unfamiliar items and learn new tricks from other cultures--and keep a sense of humor for when two languages don't match up exactly.

  9. Hello Jim:
    Oh what fun this post is. Somehow, you are absolutely right when you say that when poor translation [if indeed that is what it is]is attributed to food products, somehow one's appetite just drifts away....

    We encounter many similar parallels in Hungary as English is often used to add some 'glamour' or 'credibility' or 'western' flavour to an article or experience and, nine times out of ten, the complete opposite is achieved.

    1. Hello Jane and Lance, I think that we should take it as a compliment that English-language culture is so highly regarded that people in other countries use it to confer status on their products.

      I think that English-speaking people have committed similar crimes against French and other languages. There is a shopping mall in Ohio called Là Plàce instead of La Place; I guess the developers though what was French without accent marks.

  10. There is a show in the States called the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and he has a spot where he features this kind of stuff. Most of the products come from the Dollar Stores, and of course, they are made in your neck of the woods. Hilarious! always my favorite part of the show.

    1. Hello Lindaraxa, Here often the English component disappears after the product name and slogan, and the directions are in Chinese only. Often I would welcome even garbled English directions, which would save time having to interpret the Chinese writing, or at least serve as a double check.

  11. Dearest Parnassus,

    Oh my, it is hilarious and sounds so familiar! My favorite here is: Volunteer’s Day instead of Valentine’s Day.
    While working and living in Indonesia we have had many laughs in our everyday work. Maybe it is a healthy mix of humor and sure, we make our own mistakes in their language. We encountered tour buses with the mention: recleaning seats. What does one think with that? Full AC and Music is another one. I could go on and on. Our foster daughter from Java, Indonesia studied English at college and university but she can often surprise you with a nice mix of words that just don't go together.
    Enjoyed reading this post!
    Hugs to you,

    1. Hello Mariette, Mistakes in a language often teach lessons about fundamental rules or structures. I had never thought of recleaning and reclining as sounding similar, because I had never thought of them together. Yet, they do differ only by one vowel sound.

      I like your attitude of treating life and work lightheartedly; with that attitude, no one can ever mistake your intent.

  12. Someone mentioned H-Mart, a huge Asian grocery store chain. I almost fell over from laughing at the hand-lettered sign: Flogs Legs. Recently I saw a sign for lemon cake and lemon icing, with icing spelled I Sing.

    When I lived in Wales, everything was in Welsh and English, and I always suspected the Welsh Language Board made up names. That was confirmed when I saw a sign advertising Tampons, with the Welsh translation Tampii under it. Pertty sure that there's no historical word in Welsh for tampons.

    1. It's strange how often these mistakes in English, instead of just being confusing, have a humorous second meaning. Also how often the new versions make sense, perhaps in an odd or illuminating way.

      How interesting that you lived in Wales. A long time ago I learned some elementary Welsh, and can still vaguely remember some fragments: yr wyf i, yr wht ti, etc.

  13. Love this post! Growing up in Asia, there were loads of these. Thanks for the laugh

    1. Hello Coulda Shoulda, Glad you liked these. I'm getting ready for a second installment, perhaps in January.


I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: