The Language of Food

Brigita Orel


Hors d’oeuvre

The popularity of cookbooks and culinary television shows in the last few years has been the origin of all sorts of new phenomena, such as literature crossing the bridge from cookbooks to such subgenres as food memoirs and culinary travelogues, or the discovery of new food cultures and food vocabulary. We can now cook the Basque menestra following the recipe of the famous blogger and cookbook author, Aran Goayaga, or try our hand at the Chinese soup tangyuan from Leslie Li’s Daughter of Heaven regardless of where we live. But how well does food translate across languages and cultures? I know what to expect from menestra as I am familiar with the Italian minestrone, which was introduced into the western dialects of Slovene as mineštra. But when reading about tangyuan, there is no mental image, much less a taste imprint, accompanying the word.

Language and food are closely linked, if for nothing else, for the fact that the mouth is instrumental in both. For language, the oral cavity is the means of expression, for food it is the means for reception and tasting. It is like an intersection where language and food meet. When we reminisce about a favourite childhood dish or food, we can virtually taste it only by saying the word. The senses, supported by emotions, are a powerful tool, a reliable memory. It is for this reason that sometimes emotions are more easily expressed through food than with words, such as Tita’s longing and desperation in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. It is perhaps because of this inability to truly verbalise the wonder and deliciousness of food that when translating food between different languages and cultures, meanings and tastes can become unclear or lost.


In less exact culinary genres, such as food memoirs, difficult translations can be tackled by using approximate and roundabout descriptions. “Metaphors are very plentiful, evocative, and useful in food memoirs. They are often created to explain exotic foods and culinary practices in terms that are more familiar to [...] readers” (Waxman 373). Similarly, in an interview about multiculturalism and identity, Homi Bhabha suggests that “all forms of culture are in some ways related to each other” and thus translatable (Rutherford 209–10). However, Bhabha is also referring to metaphors, myths, and symbols. Food, however, is a very particular ingredient of culture that cannot be always expressed with metaphors when translated. Cookbooks require an exact terminology; metaphors are of little help when a soufflé collapses or steaks end up overdone.

Yet despite cultural, ethnic, religious, and other differences, there are certain concepts, such as beauty, that can be almost universally appreciated. Kant’s notion of “common sense“ explains what enables us to comprehend and appreciate beauty. By this universal communicability Kant “means that humans all must have a kind of sensing ability which operates the same way” (Burnham). This sensing ability could easily be expanded onto the beauty (and deliciousness) of food. After all, just as everyone can appreciate the magnificence of a Renoir, they can enjoy the satisfying mix of spices and herbs in a steak tartare, regardless of their mother tongue. And yet, when food is transformed into a written recipe and the language becomes a barrier, the opportunity for misunderstanding becomes greater. Walter Benjamin maintains that in translation, “the transfer can never be total [...] Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation” (19).

Furthermore, translation “implies adapting the meaning of a proposition, enabling it to pass from one code to another” (Bourriaud 30). If translation means adaptation, then in the process we lose the nuances of dishes that differ from one village to the next, not to mention from one nation to another at the other end of the world. And with this, we can lose subtle “insights into cultures” (Waxman 364).

Brett Jocelyn Epstein, a translator and editor of a number of cookbooks, enumerates several issues that cause trouble when translating culinary texts, among them the availability of ingredients, different cuts of meats, measurements, and the kitchen equipment. While all are of equal importance for the translation of a text, let us focus on the difficulties that can arise when translating the ingredients that can sometimes be essential for a dish but difficult to find in a foreign country. Epstein emphasizes that simply substituting an ingredient with a more easily obtainable one is not an appropriate solution if this is repeated throughout a cookbook for recipe after recipe, ingredient after ingredient. There are limits to the changes a translator can make in a text; limits that turn one dish into an entirely new fare with a host of new ingredients. Instead, Epstein suggests keeping the original ingredients, but adding a list of possible substitutes.

National Dish

Let us have a look at an edible example. In France, crème fraîche is a naturally fermented thick cream, but the version sold in the UK is fermented by adding sour cream, buttermilk, or yoghurt. In North Wales it is known as “croghurt“ (a portmanteau word for “cream and yoghurt“) (Ayto 103). Crème fraîche, although slightly sour with pH of about 4.5, is not sour cream, but in many countries sour cream is used as a substitute because the French version is unobtainable. On the contrary, in Italy, it is near impossible to find sour cream. There is no tradition of using it in Italian cuisine, and it is mostly immigrants from other countries, such as Ukrainians, Poles, or Slovenians, who use it in their cooking. Panna acida or panna agra, as sour cream is known in Italy, is being imported and only sold in selected shops. As another example, the Swedes use filmjölk and gräddfil which are most often translated as yoghurt and cultivated buttermilk respectively, although these translations are mere approximations. Filmjölk may resemble yoghurt in consistency but it is fermented by different bacteria that give it a less sour taste. Gräddfil is a little thicker than yoghurt and also not as sour. Then there are kefir, piimä, kumis, lassi, ayran, and clabber, to mention just a few related, but different, products.

How do such untranslatable ingredients affect the final outcome? Crêpes with fruit and sour cream are not quite the same as with crème fraîche; sour cream lacks the creaminess of the crème and has a tangier taste. Worse still, sour cream can curdle when added to a soup and heated, while crème fraîche does not. It is evident then, that culinary translation affects more than just words.

This is not, however, only a matter for chefs and cooks to consider; it is also an issue when an author wants to share traditional dishes with readers of other nationalities and especially when the core ingredients of their (or their country’s) signature dishes are not available globally. I am not here referring only to such unusual ingredients as the honeypot ants used in bush tucker. Some foods, despite the logistics accessibility of every nook and cranny of our world, are sometimes still difficult or impossible to obtain outside their place of origin simply for the lack of a high enough demand. Is it, then, better to stick to the original ingredients and keep the integrity of the recipe, or is it better to adapt the dish to another culture or let it exist between cultures? Would we rather our recipe remain a “wannabe dish” because readers are unable to find the ingredients for it, or would we prefer for them to enjoy an approximation of our creation?

Linguist, anthropologist, and renowned chef, Rick Bayless, tackles the translation of food the same way he would translate languages. He introduced countless Mexican dishes into the North American cuisine through his award-winning Mexican restaurants, cookbooks, and his television show MexicoOne Plate at a Time. He looks at the issue of translation not solely from the point of view of the original cuisine, but also from the perspective of the target audience. “You have to really understand both cultures. Not just the words, not just the ingredients or the dishes out of context, but you have to understand it on a much broader perspective” (Translating Food). He is trying to present traditional Mexican dishes in a way that will make them “understandable“ in the American context. Bayless maintains that “people will cook a dish exactly the way it's done in the host culture,” but that makes it “this sort of relic that’s not understandable” in the target culture’s context. Or as German writer and poet, Rudolf Pannwitz, stated, “our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English” (qtd. in Benjamin 22).

The more ingredients, the more complex the situation becomes, and sometimes a dish is near impossible to translate because of its cultural specificity. Mostly, such names of dishes are kept in the original, like polenta, sushi, or the already mentioned tangyuan. But particularly smaller nations, with subsequently smaller languages, feel the need to make their dishes more recognisable. For example, certain Slovenian dishes, such as idrijski žlikrofi, are registered as a traditional speciality (TSG) at the European Commission but even as such they often have poor recognisability. The same is true of other typical Slovenian dishes; while well known and appreciated at home, they are often quite unknown outside the country’s borders. Consequently, to reach higher recognisability, we often over-translate.


Fig. 1. The Making of idrijski žlikrofi. 2013. The Author.

An example of this is a Slovenian dessert whose established name in English is the “Prekmurian layer cake“ (a layered cake with apples, poppy seeds, cottage cheese and walnuts from the Prekmurje region, a region across the river Mura). However, it happens quite often that you will receive a decidedly different translation if you ask a waiter in a restaurant or people on the street what prekmurska gibanica is. Someone at some point literally translated it as the “over Mura moving cake“ (gibanica contains the morpheme gib- meaning “movement, motion“, hence “moving cake“, although it has nothing to do with moving). The wrong translation is probably mentioned more often than the correct one and it is so nonsensical that it has been preserved as a running joke, while some still think it is a correct translation.

Another quandary for the translator is the existence of words that denote different dishes in one language. Within hundred kilometres of my hometown, the name fancelj refers to three different culinary delights. We use it to denote an omelette-like dish of beaten eggs with yarrow, lemon balm or other herbs occasionally added to it. In the upper Soča valley, it is known to denote doughnuts. Further to the south, fancelj stands for deep-fried buns similar to what the French call pets-de-nonne (literally “nun’s farts“). Similarly, in Swedish, the terms kaka and tårta quite often overlap in their usage and thus cause confusion when being translated into English (as cake and torte, and sometimes even as cookie, depending on the type of pastry in the original recipe). If one is not familiar with such dialectal distinctions or cultural peculiarities, it is difficult to avoid mistranslations.

Such delicate translations also include the Turkish coffee that becomes Greek coffee in Greek bars, French toast that is called pain perdu in France, or Russian salad, called salade russe by the French, but French salad by Slovenians (and salat oliv’e by the Russians). Furthermore, if you order à la mode in France, you will be served beef braised with vegetables. In the US, however, you can only order à la mode for dessert as it means an apple pie or similar dessert served with ice cream (Ayto). These examples are often due to disagreements and misconceptions about who created a certain dish, and wrong usage can cause resentment among the (presumably) wronged parties.

Sometimes, delicious bits of information get lost in translation. A Slovenian dialectal word knedelj is usually translated into English as dumpling, a neat and straightforward translation. But in the original word knedelj that was borrowed from the German knödel, related to kneten (Snoj 209), one can detect traces of Proto-Germanic knedanan that developed through Old Saxon knedan into Old English cnedan and today’s knead (Online Etymology Dictionary). The two words, one English and the other dialectal Slovene, originate in the same ancient expression. But I suppose only linguists would find this information worth mulling over for a few seconds before tucking into a wholesome serving of plum dumplings.

Considering the aforementioned difficulties of culinary translation, it is not surprising that certain words are often simply left in the original. This is especially true of Italian dishes, such as types of pasta, or certain Asian fares (for more on translating Chinese dishes see Mu 2010). Consequently, many are now familiar with calzone, bento, farfalle, sashimi, zucchini, and zabaglione (the latter of which is also known as sabayon, zabaione, and zabajone). Even once the words find their place in their adoptive language and the users become wholly familiarised with their meaning and thus the problem of translation is avoided, another difficulty arises—that of adapting the word (morphologically) to the new language. Pine nuts in American English are also called pignoli, a word borrowed from Italian. There seems to be considerable confusion as to the plural form of the word in its English usage. Pignoli, originally a plural form of pignolo, “hovers between singular and plural in English”, where subsequently two other plural forms have appeared—pignolia and pignolis (Ayto 277).


For readers, getting to know about other cultures’s foods and their preparation can be very enriching for gaining an understanding of both those particular cultures and, in turn, their own (Waxman), but for writers and translators of cookbooks, food memoirs, culinary travelogues, and other such culturally and culinary specific genres (and especially those from smaller countries), translating food expressions can be challenging. There is no simple rule that helps translate every expression or ingredient. Translations must be carried out on a case-to-case basis, sometimes compromising the food, sometimes the translation.

Similarly, as more and more people become nomads in the 21st century, immigrating for economic or political reasons, family, or simply for fun, in the same way food too is becoming a “portable practice” (Bourriaud 33) that crosses boundaries, cultures, and languages. Due to this, food is taking on a new role; its functions “both unifying and divisive” (Waxman 366). The culinary translator’s task should be to translate in such a way that the divisive effect is minimised as much as possible and yet the text retains its cultural flavour. This is difficult, and requires knowledge of both the source and target languages and cultures, but ultimately it can be done. Food and language are like a pair of tango dancers—caught in a passionate embrace, but bickering constantly nonetheless, their tastes too dissimilar. Or, as Isabel Allende suggests, to seduce a lover one needs both food and words: “language is also aphrodisiac in regard to food; commenting on the dishes, their flavours and perfumes, is a sensual exercise for which we have a vast vocabulary filled with wit, metaphors, references, humour, word games, and subtleties” (106).

But to seduce with words, we must first taste the food. Perhaps translators and authors of culinary texts are not all accomplished cooks, but it is of great help if they can prepare and taste the dishes and ingredients that they are attempting to adapt to new cultures and environments.


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translation, food, culture

Copyright (c) 2013 Brigita Orel

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