Lost in translation: A Rose is a Rose is a Rose?

By Ma Huiqin

When I was asked for an English-Chinese list of wine grape varieties for this blog, I considered the best way to provide this information. Should I include ‘霞多丽’, ‘莎当妮’, or ‘夏多内’, since all three have been used as a translation of Chardonnay? Similarly, should I include ‘美乐’, ‘梅鹿辄’, or even ‘梅尔诺’ as a translation of Merlot?

Wine is not a part of daily life in China, so it is hardly surprising that most people are unaware of grape variety names. Even students majoring in English or French are unlikely to study them.

And while there is a standard translation of grape varieties, few people know about it in China beyond viticulturist and enologist societies. This is understandable, since before 1990, the translation of grape names did not constitute a major issue – the wine industry was quite small and homogenuous, competition was not so fierce, and few representative of foreign wines were in the market.

Translation has since become a much bigger business, with an increasing number of imported wines and with new wine distribution companies and agents emerging almost daily.

Unfortunately, many translations used in the market were done by university students who majored in English or by companies with no background in wine. When they came across a grape variety they did not know, they usually grabbed any Chinese characters that “sounded right” and published these as the translation, without checking professional wine books or the standard translation dictionary.

The problem is that careless translations based simply on sound go against the nature of the Chinese language. Unlike English, which uses an alphabet, Chinese is constructed of ideograms or characters. A Chinese word is usually made of two (and sometimes more) such characters, and the meanings of each is combined to create a new word.

From this point of view ‘霞多丽’ (rosy cloud / many / beautiful) is the best translation for Chardonnay, whereas the alternatives ‘莎当妮’ or ‘ 夏多内’ mean nothing because the characters offer no synergy.

Getting consensus on these terms will be a difficult task, especially since individual companies have spent many years and much money promoting their brands. Thus, we can expect to find Huangdong (‘莎当妮’), Dragon Seal (‘夏多内’), and Great Wall (‘霞多丽’) to continue to provide consumers many ways of saying the same thing – Chardonnay.

Here are some standard definitions from the Chinese Society of Viticulturists:

Red
Barbera 巴贝拉
Carménère 佳美娜
Carbernet Franc 品丽珠
Cabernet Sauvignon 赤霞珠
Cinsaut 神索
Malbec 玛尔贝克
Merlot 美乐
Nebbiolo 内比奥罗
Petit Verdot 小味儿多
Pinot Noir 黑比诺
Sangiovese 桑娇维塞
Shiraz / Syrah 西拉
Tempranillo 堂比尼罗
Zinfandel 增芳德

White
Aligoté 阿利歌特
Arneis 阿尼斯
Chardonnay 霞多丽
Chenin Blanc 白诗南
Colombard 鸽笼白
Gewürztraminer 琼瑶浆
Petit Manseng 小芒森
Müller-Thurgau 米勒.吐尔高
Muscat of Alexandria 亚历山大玫瑰
Pinot Gris 灰比诺
Riesling 雷司令
Roussanne 胡桑
Sauvignon Blanc 长相思
Sémillon 赛美蓉
Silvaner / Sylvaner 西万尼
Viognier 维欧妮

This sign at Yunnan Red Wine Company uses the standard translations...
This sign at Yunnan Red Wine Company uses the standard translations...
... but not this one.
... but not this one.

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2 Comments

  1. Where is the best place to find a list of standard accepted wine terms and vocabulary translated into mandarin. Thanks, Rob

  2. There are a couple more grapes missing from the list. They are Grenache and Mourvedre. Is it possible to include these? Cheers!