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What’s Cooking: Translating Food

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Brett Jocelyn Epstein photoI have translated or edited a number of cookbooks and while such work is a lot of fun (and can make you hungry, especially if there are accompanying pictures), there are certain challenges involved. Here, I want to mention the top four difficulties and possible solutions.

1) Availability of ingredients

Despite the growing popularity of cooking these days and the new trendiness of certain ethnic ingredients, the fact remains that not all items are available in all countries (and in some cases, they are only available at exorbitant costs). For example, a couple of years ago, I was the project manager for the translation to Swedish of two cookbooks that were written in Australia. Naturally, the recipes included many ingredients that were specific to Australia or to Asian countries much closer to Australia than to Sweden. Some of these ingredients were not possible to find in Sweden, so the publisher suggested simply substituting them, without any notice to the target reader. I disagreed with this approach. Substitution can definitely be an appropriate solution in some cases, but if it is used regularly throughout an entire cookbook, it seems to me that the recipes are being changed much more than a translation warrants. Therefore, my suggestion was to include the original ingredients and a list of possible substitutes. As I reminded the publisher, food trends change so rapidly that what once was only available in just one country can suddenly be available all around the world, and if we don't want the translations to date too quickly, we have to be aware of this fact. The final translations of these books included a glossary of terms and suggestions for possible substitutions.

Here, I must also point out that it is not enough for a translator to simply think, "This recipe calls for lobster, but that is too expensive and not so easily available, so I'll write shrimp instead." For recipes, translators ought to stick as closely to the original as possible and if ideas for substitutions are being offered, the translator must explain why. Also, the translator or another person connected to the project should try to cook recipes both in their original form and in the version with substitutions, to make sure that the tastes, appearances, smells, and other salient features are preserved.

2) Cuts of meat

Related somewhat to challenge 1), cuts of meat are not necessarily the same in different countries. Translators who are not "foodies" themselves or those who, like me, do not eat meat, must be aware of this fact. Here, asking experts and using reference materials is a great help. There are cuts of meat charts that are easily found on Google or you can get acquainted with chefs or others interested in food and ask for their advice. Many translators either do not think about asking for help or they get nervous about doing so. In my experience, however, experts are glad to help, and some professional translators build up a "little black book" of experts to call when they need advice on botanical, architectural, culinary, or any other matters. I'll give an example of this below. In any case, do not make assumptions about cuts of meat being the same, even if the terminology is the same or similar. Always check on this or a recipe might not turn out well.

3) Measurements

Cups or grams? Tablespoons or ounces? As is well known, there are different measurement systems around the world and it is not enough to, say, go to http://www.onlineconversion.com/, type in the numbers from the source text and write down what the website has offered you. If you did that, 2 cups would be 4.7317 dl, and when have you ever seen a recipe that calls for 4.7317 dl flour? In cases where measurements have to be changed, there are two major possible strategies. The first is that the publisher simply retains the measurements and then offers a conversion table at the back of the book. This can be quite irritating for a reader, however, because then she or he has to keep flipping from the recipe to the table. If the cookbook is more of the coffee table type, however, which is to say one that people read and look at, but don't really plan to cook from, this solution is fine. But for a cookbook that is meant for real use, it is just not practical. In this situation, new measurements based on the target culture's system must be used. This can be done either via complete replacement or replacement and retention. Complete replacement means that either the translator or another expert tests all the recipes and shifts the measurements so that instead of 4.7317 dl flour, the recipe calls for 5 dl flour. The translator must be careful here to ensure that all the new measurements make sense in the context of the recipe and that all have been converted. A recipe may not work if even one measurement is off, especially for baked goods. Replacement and retention is a combination strategy that means both changing the recipe so it reads 5 dl flour and also keeping 2 cups flour in parenthesis. This can, however, confuse readers, so it is a rare book that will use this strategy.

4) Implements, pots, and pans

As with ingredients, some countries have different implements, pots, pans, and other essential cooking items, or they may use drastically different words for a similar tool. For example, I was working on translating a cookbook from Swedish to English and was stuck on one word that kept appearing in recipes. It referred to a specific kitchen tool that does not exist in English (and, frankly, is one of those tools that don't need to exist either): a "potatissticka," or a "potato stick," which you use to check if the potatoes you are boiling are ready. I always use a fork myself, but I thought I should make sure that there really was no such item in English-speaking nations. First, I asked some other people I know who like to cook; no one had anything like it. Then, I went to a store that sold only kitchen tools and cookbooks. I said to the woman behind the counter, "I'm sure this sounds a little odd, but I'm a translator working on a cookbook and I wonder if you can help me with something." She confirmed that there is no "potato stick" in English-speaking countries, but that people use cake testers, skewers, forks, toothpicks, or meat thermometers instead. In this case, I was able to rewrite the sentence, but for other implements, there may actually be a proper word for it. It is important to find out, so ask an expert when you are not sure.

In summary, I am suggesting 1) that you have sources (whether chefs, other translators, people who enjoy cooking, shop-owners, or anyone else) who can offer ideas, 2) that you not be afraid of recommending substitutions, where appropriate, 3) that you be willing to test and compare original recipes and your translations, and 4) that you include glossaries, translators' notes, substitution lists, or other extratextual material where necessary.

I hope that this advice will offer you a recipe for success when it comes to translating cookbooks!

Published - September 2009

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