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Culinary Translation: A Recipe for Potential Disaster

Culinary Translation

As summer sadly comes to a close, many of us can fondly look back on the memories we made and the places we visited. For a large number of us, it is a time of year that is best spent with family and friends to perhaps head off on a sightseeing trip, go backpacking, sunbathe at the beach and last but not least, eat out! We all know that food is synonymous with happiness for many people across the globe - just ask those who have ever enjoyed a homemade pizza in Italy, or tried authentic paella in Spain! After travelling, the best moments of the trip stay with us, forever ingrained in our memory and this includes what we ate. Personally, I will always remember the crickets I ate in Mexico, and the Welsh pie in Swansea.

The translator’s dilemma

As a linguist, I cannot help but criticise the translation of a restaurant menu every time I go out for lunch; it’s an occupational hazard, I guess! I face the same problem when watching a movie with incorrect dubbing, but who can say as a translator that they have not had a similar issue at least once in their life? If you go to a restaurant and see a group of people, a couple or even a single person at a table laughing while reading the menu, they are probably linguists looking at an amusing mistranslation. Here is one example that doesn't seem all too appetising:

Culinary translation and its difficulties

Menu translations hold numerous challenges for the translator and could therefore be considered as a more specialised type of translation, requiring extra time for the linguist to properly familiarise themselves with the content. The main issues are the following:

Subordinate translation: menu translation can be seen as part of tourism translation, which is influenced by other elements such as space, images, and the information given by the client.

  • For example, as seen in the image, if the client doesn’t explain what “Arroz a la ilusión” is, the translation can go terribly wrong: “Rice to the illusion”. The less said about ‘the rice dishes are Pussycat for two people’, the better.
  • Ambiguous sentences or double meanings: for example, the expression “Al gusto de nuestro cocinero” where “gusto” is not “taste”, but “like”. In other words, this Spanish expression refers to how the cook likes to prepare the dishes, not how they taste.
  • Cultural references: for example, you cannot translate the Spanish “melón” (“melon” in English) as “melon” when translating into French, because in France they have a variety of smaller, sweeter melons that are more orange in colour and are different to those found in Spain. A good translation would be “melon d’Espagne” (“Spanish melon”) adding an extra word for the place of origin. Nevertheless, there are some terms that are well-known and have been globalised into wide-spread use, like paella or gazpacho and therefore do not need any explanation.

Translation strategies

There are many translation strategies a linguist can adopt, but if we had to choose four when translating a menu, literal translation, coined equivalent, linguistic borrowing and description are, without a doubt, the most predominant.

  • Literal translation: the word-for-word translation.

ES: Brownie con nueces, el toque anglosajón de la carta.

EN: Brownie with walnuts, an English touch to the menu.

  • Coined equivalent: uses a word or sentence that expresses the same thing in both languages, even if the words are completely different. For example, the Spanish word “crema” for the French “custard” or “nata” for the English word “cream”.

ES: Gallineta (Cabracho), Mero, Rape, Lubina, Rodaballo, Calamar… etc.

EN: Scorpion fish, Grouper fish, Monkfish, Sea bass, Turbot, Squid… and so on.

  • Linguistic borrowing: consists of integrating a word or a group of words from the source language into the target without translating.

ES: Presa ibérica de Guijuelo (es el centro del cabecero, también llamada bola, muy jugosa).

EN: Presa ibérica of Guijuelo (the centre of the pork shoulder on the bone, also  known as the “bola”, highly succulent).

  • Description: consists of using a description of the term in order to explain its meaning.

ES: Judías de la granja de Segovia con su compango asturiano y su manita de cerdo.

EN: White beans from Segovia with assorted meats from Asturias and pig’s trotters.

If you are not a translator and not aware of these strategies, translating restaurant menus can be a very difficult task indeed!

My family runs a restaurant and it wasn’t until I became a translator and was tasked with putting their menu into English and French that I realised just how hard this job can be. It seems that amusing menu translations are the result of non-linguistically trained restaurant managers or chefs attempting the task themselves or the misuse of Google Translate, in order to save money and avoid hiring a professional translator.

Even for professional specialised translators, food and menus can be very challenging, but if you choose not to go down the certified route, the results, as we can see from the image above, can be highly comical.

So if you have travel plans for the last few remaining weeks of the summer and find yourself in a restaurant with a laughable menu, remember to ask the waiter if you have any doubts and enjoy!

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