Restaurant Translation

| July 11, 2016 | 1 Comment

Where does a restaurant’s name come from? What goes into the name of a restaurant that serves Chinese food? What goes into the English name of a restaurant that serves Chinese food?

It seems like a simple question. But the more I thought back over the many restaurants and names I’ve encountered, the more I found something to wonder at.


Childhood: a literal name. 

When I was growing up, every special occasion meant a trip to Golden City. Jincheng. The English and Chinese are word for word, although the connotations in each language are different. “Gold” in English can carry a sense of gaudiness but that was never the sense I got hearing the word in Mandarin. In Chinese, I never felt that imagining a city of gold was a stretch, partly because “golden” didn’t have to be literal; it also had a fluid sense that I interpreted as “beautiful,” or “precious.” Perhaps English here conveys the meaning too literally.


Shopping center: maximum commercial appeal.

Golden City was the only Chinese restaurant of my childhood. More recently, I visited a different establishment with my father. While the sign read “Peking Palace” in English, the Chinese characters beneath it clearly spelled out a much longer title. Although I couldn’t read it in full, I knew enough to see that it certainly didn’t read “Peking Palace.”

My dad explained that the last part of the name was “Hunan Cuisine Restaurant.” The first part could be interpreted a few different ways (this is often the case in literary Chinese). It could be read as “A Fresh Flowery Sky,” perhaps, or “A New Chinese Day.”

I’ve noticed this in a few Chinese restaurants–a fairly literary name in Chinese, but an English name chosen for its popular appeal to people without Chinese background. After all, “Peking” is an outdated name for Beijing, and I don’t know any Chinese people who spell it that way now. Also, as any elementary geographer can tell you, Peking is not Hunan.

This restaurant also had two different menus for their customers. It’s a smart business strategy, especially in an area where your clientele consists of both people who want Hunan food and people who simply want popular American Chinese food.

Sadly, Peking Palace has now closed. The new tenant operates under the name “Asia Cafe.” Maybe the name “Peking” was still too confusing for non-Chinese people. The Chinese name, however, no longer contains additional meaning. It simply reads, yazhou. “Asia.”


Cambridge: more on second glance.

Literary names aren’t the only difficult thing to translate. Recently, I saw a restaurant name in Cambridge that defies proper English translation.

As I approached “Beijing Tokyo”, the name struck me as uncreative. However, when I got close enough to read the characters in the logo, I was pleasantly surprised. The name hinged on a wordplay that couldn’t carry over in English. In Chinese characters (and Japanese kanji), Beijing and Tokyo share the character that means “capital city.” Beijing and Dongjing. The restaurant had linked the two names with the common character in the middle. From left to right, it read “Beijing,” and from right to left, “Tokyo.”


What might it mean for us to see restaurants as translations–not just in their names, but in their menus, their choice of decor, or in the people they choose to employ?

All of us have encountered plenty of restaurants over our lifetimes. Just among these three, I found very different stories and possibilities behind each name. It makes one wonder about the different stories these restaurants’ owners could tell and about the different circumstances behind every decision and every name.

featured photo credit: x via photopin (license)

post photos from Google Maps: a, b, c

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Category: Boston, featured, Food and Travel

Huey Wu

About the Author ()

Huey Wu is a Senior studying Comparative Literature. When not writing in a journal, writing for class, or working as a writing tutor, they enjoy volleyball, puzzles, and gentle company.

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  1. Ceci says:

    “What might it mean for us to see restaurants as translations”—love this idea. Great post!

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