March 2023

We need to talk about… Food in Translation – a digest of the chatline

What follows is a digest of the enthusiastic chatline on the perils and pleasures of what may (or may not) get lost in translation. Invited guests Maureen Fant, Anthony Buccini and Ken Albala chewed the fat with a lively group of co-diners. Naomi Duguid took the head of the table. 


There are macro-issues and there are micro-issues. The important question is what was the intention and under what circumstances was the original written?  What was the audience he was speaking to?

Translation is not the same as interpretation, which is not the same as explanation – even though some would say all translation is explanation.  When a book is translated for anew group, the work of the translator is very helpful [in ensuring] its reception by readers in the new language.

What I’m hoping to create is accuracy – not always possible with historical texts. You can’t deliver everything that’s therein the original in the form of a recipe.  

Translating poetry is easier than translating culinary text. With poetry there are creative choices, with recipes it’s more difficult. When translating poetry you’re trying to create a new poem; with a recipe from the past, you’re trying to create it for today.  A poetic metaphor or pun is as difficult to translate as a culinary term – both are culturally and linguistically specific.I once heard a poet compare translatingpoetry to sharing a recipe: you start with the same ingredients,but in the hands of another cook, it tastes utterly different.   Ifpoets are the best translators of poetry, recipes are best translated by recipe-writers.

Do culinary translators of culinary texts need to know how to cook?  When translating Apicius, it only made sense when we cooked the recipes. It’ll be complete nonsense if you just translate the words.  So you need to cook the recipe in order to translate it well.  Every time you cook a recipe, ancient or modern, it’s already a form of translation. Cooking with the equipment of the period also allows for insight into the translation process.

When I cooked all the foods I photograph for my Visual Encyclopaedia of Indian foods, I needed to translate recipesfrom at least 21 vernacular languages written over the last 150 years, I realized that descriptions of consistency and texture are dictated by who I ask. 


Does adding a photo change how we understand a translation? The problem with a photo is that it only allows one potential outcome.  What about translating visual design? With a poem, the look on the page and interaction between words and white-space has meaning which it doesn’t have in translation as the text has different design elements.

Images sell cookbooks. Wouldn’t a photo help understanding?  Pictures establish the semantic continuity of a foodstuff, especially when we are talking about specific words such as different types of pasta.  When you are trying to understand acompletely new cuisine, a photo can help to understandintention.

Ruby Tandoh’s “Cook As You Are” does a great job of removing expectations set by studio photography – the message is ‘just cook the recipe and feed yourself.’  Illustrationlimits freedom, but can also be useful in defining an ingredient.

Images can reflect the aesthetics of a time and place. Gelatindishes could have been thought wonderful or horrid, but if they’re tasty they’re worth translating.  At present, it seems that looks are more important than taste.


Ugly translation – the clunk-factor – is sometimes inevitable, particularly with Italian.  Take one word in Italian and you need a string of them in English. The name of a pastadescribes what it is – the synthesis is in the language. Sometimes the meaning is untranslatable because of cultural differences.  Copious notes solve problems, even if the textbecomes clunky. 

Problems are always different. For instance, Portuguese has a flair for drama and long explanation. Choose accuracy over simplicity every time.

Presumably there’s a difference between translating a piece of writing about food, and explaining a recipe in a different language so the dish can be prepared by someone else.  Take pancetta/guanciale/bacon: presumably a translator must have abasic knowledge that these ingredients are different.  A reader might be better equipped to find a local substitute if the text gives the original word.  Best to indicate what’s expected of the ingredient – takes a little longer, but can be  done.   In cookbooks, there’s always the glossary or “ingredients” section,

though I worry glossaries are as endangered as notes.

Note: the 1598 translation into English from the Italian translates all/most the cured pork products as “bacon” (occasionally lard).


Read Artusi – he’s lovely! – I read it almost like fiction. Same goes for Menon in France in the 18th century, and the La Cuisine Bourgeoise.  Take, for instance, “Briconne del macellaio” in the 1996 Artusi translation by Kyle Phillips III (Random House): “Fillet may be the tenderest of meats, but if that scoundrel of a butcher gives you the part with the tendons, rest assured that half will go to the cat.”

For “briccone,” I might choose “shyster.”  Apparently you cancall a child briccone, which means “rascal” is OK, but “scoundrel” is too heavy.  For “scoundrel” read malcalzone – it’s tougher than briccone. And it seems that briccone can also be affectionate – as in “my grandchild outsmarted me.”

People find the strangest things unpalatable. Looking through an historical recipe collection  for something to try, I foundrecipes for Bear, to which I instinctively said “eww”, but for all I know it’s just lovely. You need to know that with bear, the taste depends on the season.  

Horse was not available for human consumption until last year. And brain disappeared after Mad Cow but is back invogue in Paris, where there’s a tête de veau revival.

I love the many vegetarian dishes that have meaty names: takecervelles to cnut – ‘silk weavers’ brains’ – which is actually cream cheese mashed with herbs (several reasons are given for name, none of them polite!).

Brains are a great treat. Lots of offal is still very popular in Southeast Asia.  Brains are delicious stewed with coconut milk, chillies, and spices – a Sumatran recipe  Lungs are illegal in the US but a huge favourite in Malaysia and Indonesia – especially crispy fried.  Lebanese eat them too -very delicious.  I’m told there’s a thriving black market for lungs, diagnostic ingredient in haggis, in the US around Burns Day

We should eat the whole animal, in whichever translation.