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?|
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.