Translating is hard work, particularly when the translation is from an eastern to a western language (or vice versa), where grammar, structure, vocabulary, and usage are totally different. For sellers of Chinese and Taiwanese teas, though, translation is essential. The names “Bai Ji Guan” or “Bi Luo Chun” are tongue twisters and do not easily register in the minds of western customers – a clear violation of basic marketing principles.

Of course, translations are not universal – for example, “Shuixian” has been translated as “Water Fairy,” “Water Immortal,” “Water Sprite,” “Daffodil,” “Narcissus,” and “Sacred Lily.” At our online tea shop, we typically give the English translation, the Hanyu Pinyin pronunciation, and the Chinese characters, so our prospective customers know exactly what they are buying.

Yet there are some tea names that are best left untranslated. For example, geographical names are best not translated. Shanghai is Shanghai rather than “Boarding the Ocean” and Guangdong should be left as is rather than translated to “Broad East.” Mandarin is a character-based language and hence using the literal meaning of geographical names makes as much sense as trying to explain what O-H-I-O means.

The most popular tea-naming convention is to include the area where the tea is produced first, followed by a word that describes a specific trait of the tea, such as Yinzhen for silver needles. For example, the world-famous Xihu Longjing should be translated as Xihu Dragon Well as opposed to West Lake Dragon Well. Another basic principle is that names of individuals should not be translated. You wouldn’t call Chow Yun-Fat “Week Lubricate Send” (just one of the myriad possible translations), would you?

With that in mind, let’s look at three examples of tea names that should be best left in their Hanyu Pinyin form.

Nan Jing Yu Hua Cha (南京雨花茶)

This interesting green tea was first produced in 1958 in Nanjing (yes, Nanjing of the Nanjing Massacre infamy) in Jiangsu province. Since the first part is the county, it should appear in its original form as opposed to as “Southern Capital.” Yuhua is literally translated as “Rain Flower,” but the name Nanjing Rain Flower would be inappropriate since it was so named after Yuhuatai, the scenic tourist spot where it was harvested.

If not properly explained, it might also be misconstrued as a scented tea (hua cha) harvested before the “harvest rain” (yu).

Dinggu Dafang (顶谷大方)

From the province of Anhui, this is one of my current favorite green teas, possessing a deep roasted fragrance and a lingering aftertaste. Don’t be deceived by the appearance, though; it’s not a Longjing imitator. In fact, it is believed to have an earlier beginning than the venerable Longjing. It may well be translated as “Peak Valley Generous” with the oxymoron only half of its problems.

To understand the name, we need to study the origin. This tea is the highest grade of Laozhu Dafang, which is grown on Laozhulin Mountain. “Ding” means peak, where the top grade of leaves are picked. “Gu” refers to “guyu,” or harvest rain – the period on the Chinese agricultural calendar that follows April 20. Hence, Dinggu refers to top-grade leaves that are grown near the summit and plucked when young.

As for Dafang, it refers to the name of the inventor, a Dafang monk. Hence, though the phrase can be translated as generous, it makes no sense to do so.

Taiping Houkui (太平猴魁)

I saved the best for last in terms of translation difficulty. Many have translated the name of this tea into variants of “Peaceful Monkey King.” The confusion is understandable because, for starters, Taiping is a common phrase for peaceful. If you look up the origin of Taiping Houkui, it is generally listed as Huangshan County, an area that was previously known as “Taiping County,” but was incorporated into Huangshan County in the 1980s. In addition, Taiping will never be forgotten by history by virtue of the infamous Taiping Rebellion, which would be odd if translated as the “Peaceful Rebellion.”

“Hou” in Houkui refers to the village known as “Hou Keng,” or “Monkey’s Pit,” where Taiping Houkui first originated. Since it’s a location name, it shouldn’t be translated. As for “kui,” it’s a tough translation. “Kui” can mean a giant or stalwart-like figure. But fortunately, we shouldn’t translate it since it is part of the name of its creator – Wang Kui Cheng.

Putting it all together, Taiping Houkui is pretty much untranslatable. The list of untranslatable names goes on and on, Pu-er, of course, being the best known. I suspect no one bothered to translate it, first because it is a geographical location in Yunnan and secondly because even most native Chinese speakers can’t translate Pu and Er since it came from the Hani (a minority tribe in China) language.

Editor’s note: this fascinating – and still true – post was first published on the blog 12 December 2012