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Tums Chewy Delights' Not-So-Delightful Fortune Cookie Translation

April 28, 2016

 

 

I just saw a fun, creative Tums Chewy Delights commercial on TV. Scenario: after a greasy yet satisfying dinner at a Chinese restaurant, a gentleman faces an imminent heartburn attack. The harbinger is the fortune he unrolls, a provocative message from none other than the man who frequently graces Chinese restaurant menus in the States (yet unheard of in China as a dish): General Tso. "THIS MEANS WAR  GENERAL TSO," the fortune reads, accompanied by a line of Chinese translation: "这意味着战争." Without delay, chopstick-catapults under the general's command unleash a salvo of chicken pieces. Morsels and sauce splash against the poor diner's shirt. Time for Tums to destroy the heartburn army! War is over. 

 

It is the Chinese translation that destroys me. First of all, “这意味着战争” is an outright literal translation of "This means war." The problem is that even in English, "this means war" is not to be understood literally. It is not an explanation of what a situation means, but an avowal of anger and a forewarning of conflict. Such nuance is not immediately transferable in Chinese. Second, the fortune is signed "General Tso," which foreshadows the upcoming wordplay-inspired visual gag of General Tso leading the army of General Tso's chicken. The translation completely omits the signature, making it difficult for a non-bilingual, Chinese-speaking viewer in the U.S. to connect the dots. 

 

Based on the above considerations, I would translate the fortune into "决战开始——左宗棠宣.“ “决战开始” means "let the critical battle begin," which conveys the essence of the fortune as a declaration of war. Instead of General Tso, 左将军, I choose to use his full name 左宗棠 (Zuo Zongtang) in keeping with how he is customarily referred to in Chinese. By the way, even at Chinese restaurants, General Tso's chicken is known as 左宗棠鸡 (Zuo Zongtang's chicken), not “左将军鸡," the literal translation. I also add the character “宣," "announce" in the end to drive home the point that this is a 战书, an official declaration of war. 


Finally, a caveat: General Tso's chicken is not an authentic Chinese dish, but an invention of Chinese-American cooking. Therefore, this commercial would not make a lick of sense if it were aired in China, no matter how good the translation may be. Of course, Tums has not expanded into the Chinese market yet, so the scenario is unlikely. Nevertheless, I would like to make the point that translators are not passive transcribers who simply repeat what's said into another language, but active language and culture observers whose expertise directly effects a campaign's impact. After conceptualization, writing, and copyediting, translation is often the last link of a global campaign. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Don't let it be your translator. 

 

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