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Translating recipes and menus appears to be a simple task at first sight, but that is only one's first impression. A menu looks like a simple food-list, and cookery books might be considered as a list of recipes with sets of ingredients and simple instructions. How misleading! We have been translating cookery books and menus for many years and we still find this task a challenge.

A dish on a menu has to inform the customer about its content and also sound appetizing. This is not always straightforward and is full of traps. For example, how does one translate certain Greek dishes into English? Octopus is very popular in Greece and many dishes are based on this ingredient. One appetiser prepared with octopus looks like meatballs, but obviously cannot be translated as "octopus balls"! So what does one call them? The choices are limited: fritters, puffs or croquettes. None of these however convey the Greek word “Chtapodokeftedes”. Greek cuisine also has many dishes prepared with aubergine and courgettes, and whereas these two words are perfectly suited for an English cook, they might be unfamiliar to an American, who would prefer eggplant and zucchini. Sometimes, it is preferable to transliterate the Greek word, as in the case of Moussaka or taramasalata, and add an explanatory note, e.g.

Layers of aubergine and minced meat
topped with Béchamel sauce

Finally, certain things have to be changed altogether. Once, we had to translate a recipe for a type of Greek bread whose literal translation is “Peasant Bread”. The equivalent Greek word has no negative connotations, but the English one does. So another way of conveying the countryside character of the bread had to be found in order to avoid jokes of the type “place two peasants in a mixing bowl…”!

Translating food from French into English is no easier. How, for example, would you translate "nuage de pommes de terre"? It sounds perfectly good and appetising in French, but how tasty is a “cloud of potato”? Veal liver with “échalotes aux vieux balsamique” sounds wonderful but I'm not so sure about Veal liver and "shallots with old balsamic vinegar"…the word "old" is not particularly appetising; I would prefer “mature” for instance! And I certainly wouldn't like “thickly cut tuna tummy, pink cooked, covered with a sort of crumble…” (a translation of a mouthwatering French dish) for dinner!

Another challenge for food translators is total ignorance of the object of translation. How many people know what a “homity pie”or “bulgar” [also called bulgur, burghul, bourgouri, pourgouri] is? What do they look like, what do they taste of…? And what does one do with “ayam dan tembu satay”. This problem can sometimes be solved by consulting specialised dictionaries and the Internet but I still haven't discovered what “tembu” is. However, not having actually seen and tasted an ingredient or dish is definitely a handicap. Last but not least, translators who are indifferent to food or dislike anything foreign should avoid food translations.

Translating food is definitely a challenge but publishing English-language foreign recipe books, for instance, is not that much easier. Litterae recently published a book in English entitled “Aubergines”, with recipes from around the world. Before finalising the text for this book, serious decisions had to be made concerning measurements and language; two very important marketing issues.

The requirements for the British market differ significantly from those of the US and Canadian markets. We actually contacted a distributor in the USA to enquire about possibilities of distributing the book in America and, not surprisingly, the distributor commented on the use of the word “aubergine” instead of “eggplant”.

Utensil terminology is another thing one has to be careful about when publishing English language cookery books. The British use frying pans whereas the Americans use skillets. The British use the French expression “au bain-marie” for cooking an item in a container placed in a pan of water while the Americans prefer a “double boiler” [also called double saucepan].

Ingredients can also cause problems. Certain items in exotic recipes are not available in Western Europe and one has to find substitute ingredients either by consulting the author or using one's imagination. An exotic recipe from the Philippines in the “Aubergines” publication, for example, calls for the “heart of a banana flower” and although international
trade has brought many an ingredient to Europe, chances of finding banana flowers are extremely limited…The solution is an alternative ingredient with a similar taste and consistency. In this case, palm hearts or apples do the trick.

As for quantities, that is another story.
The older generation in the UK is used to pounds, ounces, fluid ounces and teaspoons/ tablespoons, while the new generation has gone metric and talks about kilograms and litres. In the US, they prefer cups.

Last but not least, make sure that you do not translate on an empty stomach as it can be real torture…

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