Arugula—Rehashed: The Mean Streets of Culinary Translation

After 35 years as a translator, these two things I know: we translators love words, and we love a good meal. The more exotic the meal (or the words), the better. Need a good Burmese take-out in Oklahoma City? Ask a translator! A colleague and I recently had a discussion on the taxonomy of the world’s dumplings, from Russian pel’meni to Japanese gyoza. I had to own up that I had never sampled a Filipino siopao. Horrified, he explained the Chinese origins of the term, then procured a sample for me straightaway. Terminology management can be a delicious undertaking!

When I asked my translation students what market niches they wanted to study, it came as no surprise when they suggested culinary translation. What translator is not a subject-matter expert in this field? In preparing my first lecture on the topic—which grew into a presentation at ATA’s 2016 Annual Conference—I did, however, have to put the past behind me. I eventually called the ATA talk “Arugula by Any Other Name.” The choice of title was part of my professional therapy.

You see, a trauma had befallen me years ago, late one Friday afternoon, at my day job. After years of dealing with texts about pandemics and weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the finer points of tariff nomenclature, nothing should have fazed me. But that afternoon it happened: the career buster, in the form of an innocent menu translation for a VIP dinner, naturally a rush job. An outstanding colleague translated the menu swiftly into flawless Spanish, and since the office was clearing out for the weekend, he asked me to do the review. “But I don’t translate into Spanish,” I protested. We decided that the risks of having me step into the breach were minimal, so I proceeded to review. I could find nothing wrong. Perhaps to justify my newfound reviewer’s hat, I ventured that the translator might have found something “more Spanish-sounding” than “arúgula” for the salad green featured on the menu. Armed with my stack of dictionaries in that pre-Internet age, I hazarded a suggestion: use “oruga.”

The translator’s lips and eyelids tensed. He drew a deep breath, then explained that he was aware of the venerable term “oruga,” but that to the native ear, this first and foremost meant “caterpillar.” “Which, of course, would be unappetizing to most people in a salad,” he exclaimed. I will never forget how his tone dropped when he slowed to say, “Of course.” I wilted like a plate of baby mesclun under a restaurant heat lamp.

And—of course—I knew about the caterpillar thing, at some level of my brain. But in the zeal of the moment, I had forgotten it. I never reviewed into Spanish again! And I learned a valuable lesson: in culinary translation, being accurate is important, but being appetizing is perhaps even more so.

You have seen the botched menu translations as you travel the world. My favorite was the comical rendering of the emblematic Peruvian dish lomo saltado at an otherwise very decent restaurant in Arequipa. On a bilingual menu, the translator has some choices:

  • Sautéed loin: short and to-the-point, but very literal, and with no indication of what critter is being cooked. Is it pork, beef, or something else?
  • Stir-fried sirloin, with onions and tomatoes: this gives a nod to the dish’s East Asian origins, and a bit more information on its ingredients. And now at least we sense it is beef.
  • Stir-fry of sirloin, onions, and tomatoes, served with French fries and rice: gotta love English, where “stir-fry” can exist as a noun. Carb-conscious diners will appreciate this translation, which is almost a recipe, though it might not fit on a narrow menu column!

Unfortunately, whoever translated the menu I read that evening had neglected to ask for my sage advice. The menu listed the dish as “jumped loin.” Enough said. Culinary translation clearly merits serious study . . . and sensitivity training.

When I gave that ATA talk in 2016, I was surprised how many attendees mentioned that they work in this niche. Together, we explored the mean streets of culinary translation. What makes it so hard to translate innocent-looking menus, not to mention restaurant reviews, or other gastronomic prose? I came up with five reasons:

  1. Ornate Names: A century ago, the dining room at the Hotel Marlborough, one of the finest in New York City, featured a dish it labeled simply as “Broiled sweetbread on toast, with mushrooms and peas.” However rarefied the dish, it wore a fairly plain moniker. One century later, the Inn at Little Washington, one of the best restaurants in the DC area, proudly served sweetbreads in a dish it dubbed “Bourbon-glazed crispy veal sweetbreads with pappardelle pasta and Blenheim apricots.” We describe the hell out of our food today, and naming dishes becomes as much of an art as plating them. Imagine translating the name of the latter-day dish into French or Spanish. Then imagine translating it into Urdu, or Korean!
  2. Concern for Freshness, Health, and the Environment: I dine out enough to be unfazed by phrases such as “heirloom tomatoes,” “pole-caught tuna,” and “locally sourced radishes.” But when I dine with visitors from other countries, I see how these labels—which remind us how far from the land and the sea we can be in the US—can actually be a turnoff for my guests. I have seen them read the words “fresh-cracked eggs” on a menu and swear they would never eat an egg in the US again, disconcerted as they were by the reminder that any other kind of egg could possibly be served. These competing food concerns make the translator’s job a lot more difficult. How would you translate this menu announcement: “Game may contain shot”? Is this a case of TMI—one that might cause you to pass on the medallions of the venison, in any language?
  3. The Transnational Palate: It struck me, as I was recently offered a dollop of “sriracha aïoli,” that we live in an odd and fascinating world—one in which Thai and Provençal condiments commingle on our plates, and menus assume we are prepared for this. The name of a single dish these days can send the translator scurrying through three or more languages and cultures, with forays into botany, zoology, geography, and history.
  4. Culinary Culture Clashes (or C3 as the cognoscenti say): I once worked at an Inter-American conference at which the US hosts vowed to serve chili con carne—a proud dish that I enjoy—to their Latin American visitors. The organizer handed me the menu in English and assured me that “chili con carne” was one term that would certainly need no translation into Spanish. How could he know that for much of South America, a chile (note final vowel!) is an ají? And that the dish is virtually unknown to most Dominicans, Argentines, Colombians, and even Mexicans! How about this translation: Guiso picante de carne de res? Is it accurate? Appetizing? One translator said, “Don’t they know?—one should always serve chicken.”
  5. Exotic Ingredients: A leading restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gastón, now serves dishes featuring a trendy herb called “sacha culantro.” The name reflects Peru’s Quechua-speaking heritage. Few diners are aware that what is often called “cilantro” can either be an old-world plant (Coriandrum sativum), or a new-world plant (Erygium foetidum). Sacha culantro belongs to the latter strain. Again, the translator becomes a botanist, and is left to find a space-conscious way to reconcile accuracy and appetite.

I grew up in 1960s US suburbia. Exotic dishes (mostly from my Polish and Italian grandparents) were generally limited to weekends and holidays. Most weekdays, plainer fare prevailed. Indeed, a typical midweek menu item at my house would have read: “Meat and potatoes, with overcooked hybrid vegetables, indifferently sourced, un-sauced, seasoned with salt and pepper.” My father had a different name, somewhat more exotic: “yeiayli” (“You’ll eat it and you’ll like it”). What a happy life we grown-up translators lead, ambling down the mean streets of culinary translation, able to explore the taxonomy and etymology of every dish we encounter. And filling our hungry termbases along the way.

Image source: Pixabay

Author bio

Joe Mazza (mazzajp2@state.gov), a 1984 graduate of the George Washington University (BA in International Affairs), joined the State Department’s Office of Language Services (LS) in 1989 as a translator of Romance languages, following five years as a translator of Russian and Romance languages with the Navy Department. In 2006, he became Chief of LS’s Translating Division, with responsibility for most State Department translations. In 2015, he began teaching Spanish/English translation at the University of Maryland’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation (GSIT) program. He currently serves as Administrator of the ATA Government Division. Joe’s first job was washing dishes at La Bonne Auberge in New Hope, PA, where his boss smoothed out his high-school French and taught him to appreciate a good plate of coquilles Saint-Jacques à l’armoricaine.

4 thoughts on “Arugula—Rehashed: The Mean Streets of Culinary Translation

  1. In british english the term sauté is well known and would be suitable for saltado surely.

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