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Recipes for translation success? Key challenges in the food translations industry

Food isn’t simply a means to the end of your hunger. It can banish Monday blues, make you friends for life, and be the heartwarming hello that welcomes you home at night.

Food is a deeply expressive medium that embodies our personality, emotions, ambitions and importantly our cultural identity and heritage. Although love for food is a global phenomenon, each country has a unique relationship with its own cuisine. For example, in Vietnam someone who is thought to be kind-hearted would be referred to as ‘tốt bụng’, which literally means ‘good stomach’.

Translating recipes doesn’t only involve an understanding of different cooking methods and ingredients, but also an understanding of the different ways people think about, and talk about, their food. Precisely because of the diversity of food, there are inevitably going to be translation challenges.

Here are three of the main obstacles translators come up against when translating recipes.

Ingredients by any other name

Ingredients are the foundation of any recipe, however some are much easier to get your hands on than others. Making a foreign dish may sound like a fun and different idea on paper, but once you’ve spent an hour wandering around Tesco looking for Hachinoko (Bee Larvae) you may change your mind.

Translators face this very obstacle when having to translate a recipe accurately.

Often a literal translation of the ingredients isn’t a realistic option due to limited availability of those “exotic” ingredients. In such cases, translation will need to include suggesting alternative ingredients, leaving the recipe intact but with a list of easier to source alternatives.

Even this, however, presents its problems. A not-too-far-from-home example of ingredient problems is creme fraiche; a naturally fermented thick cream found in France.

The version of creme fraiche usually available in local supermarkets in the UK is fermented by adding sour cream, buttermilk, or yoghurt. Although Creme Fraiche has a PH of roughly 4.5, giving it a sour flavour, it is not as sour as sour cream. Yet in many countries, sour cream is suggested as an alternative to creme Fraiche.

In order to make sure that the appropriate alternative is recommended, accurate recipe translation requires that the translated recipe is tested to ensure balance is maintained with the replacement ingredients.

The problem with culturally specific food names

Every country has cuisine specific to their culture. However some are harder to translate than others.

Take the example of English food names, with dishes such as Spotted Dick, Deviled Eggs, Bubble and Squeak and Toad in the Hole. Should a translator try and tackle the translation of these patriotic dishes, and if so, how to begin?

Dishes from other countries have equally as extravagant and confusing names if translated into English. For example the French light choux pastry dish ‘Pets de nonne’ translates to ‘nun’s farts’, hardly appetising.

Similarly Poland’s ‘gołąbki’ cabbage wrapped around different fillings, translates into ‘Little pigeons’ investigate this site.

French dishes are known to retain their French name, even when being referred to in foreign countries, therefore it would seem sensible to do the same with English dishes.

Getting measurements right

Grams or Oz? Cups or ml? Every recipe seems to go by a difference measurement system and this is especially true for different countries.

Try converting an American recipe using cups to an English recipe using grams; it’s annoying and wastes valuable cooking time. Using an online converter can seems like a valid option, however when it converts 4 cups flour to 9.4635 dl flour, you won’t feel this is a quick fix.

Translators, therefore, have two options when translating measurements into the system used in the target language. The first is a complete replacement. This means testing the recipes and shifting the measurements into locally more common units. For example instead of 9.4635 dl flour, use 8 or 10 dl flour.

This is a delicate job as the balance of the recipe has to remain intact. If measurements are off the recipe may not work.

The second method is replacement and retention. This gives the reader two lots of measurements. Firstly the 8 or 10 dl flour whilst keeping the original measurement of 4 cups in parenthesis.

Whilst this gives the reader more information and options, it can likewise be confusing and therefore is a rare method for publishers to use.

The right tool for the job: Implements, pots & pans

The metaphorical toolbox of the kitchen; utensils, pots, pans, cutlery, crockery there is already a lot of equipment to become acquainted with in your own language, let alone country specific equipment.

In the translation of implements, translators need to take into account similar tools that have very different names and definitions in different languages and cultures. Alongside this recipes may use instruments that do not exist in the target language.

For example, what English chefs might know as a Mezzaluna is known as a Berceau to the French.

Similarly, cuisines specific to a country (for example, crepes in France), warrant specialised equipment (a crepe pan) that would be an essential part of a Frenchmans kitchenware, however would be unlikely to be found in an English kitchen.

In such cases, translators can offer alternatives, or a description of the specialised or country specific equipment so that it can be found or substituted more easily.

The proof of the pudding

Ultimately, the mark of a well translated recipe is that it allows cooks, chefs and eager foodies to recreate an experience that would otherwise have been inaccessible to them without a good translation.

The proof of a good recipe translation is in the eating of the (translated) pudding. Or as the Spanish say: al freír de los huevos lo verá. You will see it when you fry the eggs.

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