The Translator as an Editor

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

When it comes to reviewing copy, translators are often at what I like to refer to as “the very end of the line.” By the time copy is deemed ready for translation, it has usually been reviewed and edited by a plethora of people, including a professional team of editors and proofreaders. Yet, despite that overabundance of meticulous scrutiny, we translators often find that “final” texts still need editing prior to (and often post) translation.

While some may be tempted to think that the need for editing at this stage of the process highlights other reviewers’ shortcomings, this is seldom the case. More often than not, editors and proofreaders are bright, thorough, and highly proficient professionals. The issue is not so much how errors could have been made or missed, but why it is that “weak spots” in the copy typically surface at the very end of the line, that is, during the translation process. The answer lies not only in a translator’s language skills but in the very nature of translation.

Words Versus Ideas

While translators are skilled linguists with a thorough academic and practical knowledge of both their source and target languages (indeed, many are experts in their subject matter areas), this does not account entirely for them being more likely to identify unobvious copy flaws than many other reviewers.

It has been said many times before, but can never be overstated: translation is not only about words, it is mostly about ideas. In order to interpret the idea/concept/message behind a phrase and convey it in another language, translators must deconstruct and then reconstruct that phrase completely. It is during that “stripping” process that unobvious copy flaws often surface. While the translator does not necessarily need to be familiar with the subject matter of the source copy, in order to provide an accurate translation, he or she must understand the sense of each phrase and how it relates to the text as a whole.

If the copy is in any way ambiguous, a good translator will likely query it. There are many reasons for this. First, because a professional and ethical translator will not translate copy about which he or she is uncertain. Second, because at some point, someone might call the translation into question for not matching the source copy, regardless of the latter’s accuracy. And third, because a translator might actually feel some degree of accountability for the quality (or lack thereof) of the clients’ material.

Translators Are Writers, Too

Besides their ability to deconstruct copy, translators are writers in their own right. Regardless of whether or not a translator specializes in literary translation, writing (i.e., thinking through, drafting, revising, editing) is an essential part of the translation process.

The concept of the translator as a writer is foreign to many clients, but translators literally rewrite their client’s copy from scratch (think entire contracts, websites, instruction manuals, product brochures, articles, books, etc.), from beginning to end. This is why it should not come as a surprise that translators are more likely to point out inconsistencies than most people reading through page after page of copy, even with a critical eye.

If the copy contains discrepancies (e.g., conflicting information within the same piece, or across several pieces of printed material), the translator is more likely than most to notice it and point it out. In addition, translators often have to research the subject matter during a translation. If during that research they come across something that conflicts deeply with the information presented in the source copy, they might also question it.

An Inquisitive Translator Is Good News

Every professional’s brain is trained to look at copy differently. A marketing specialist may review copy to make sure that it contains specific selling points, flows nicely, and is catchy. A legal specialist may check to make sure a document does not open the door to legal challenges. An engineer’s review may focus on providing technical feedback. A proofreader will typically identify spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and major issues with sentence construction. But few people read copy more carefully than a translator. Typically, it is not until the translator actually starts translating that inconsistencies, technical inaccuracies, and unobvious flaws related to the structure of a given phrase or its meaning surface.

Regardless of the source of uncertainty— a translator’s misinterpretation, ambiguity in the source copy, or an obvious misprint—a good translator will likely ask questions during the translation process. Not always, of course, but often enough that a client may have cause for concern if a translator never does. Although most professional translators are able to look past “weak spots” and return better/clearer copy than the original, never asking questions would suggest that the copy is always clearly and flawlessly written. It would also suggest that the translator always comprehends the text fully, including the client’s technicalities, plays on words, artistic/writing licenses, and other subtleties. The chance of that is rather slim, especially in creative environments.

In fact, most translators will agree that asking questions is often part of the job. As Translation: Getting it Right, ATA’s free client education guide, puts it:

An inquisitive translator is good news:

No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.

Good translators strip down your sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. And they ask questions along the way.1 But not every client may feel that way.

Asset or Nuisance?

Some clients value their translator’s input so much that they will actually wait until their copy comes back from translation before releasing it or going to print. For these clients, a translator’s meticulousness tracking of the subject matter is an asset, and they have learned the value of building extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for both translation and post-translation editing. But clients who are relatively new to translation or to the international scene may have a difficult time appreciating the fact that an inquisitive translator is a good one (not a nuisance), or that copy can never be reviewed by too many eyes.

In some cases, a translator’s attention to detail may even be met with animosity, resentment, or distrust. A writer may take umbrage at his or her copy being queried. An editor may feel that his or her professional skills are being challenged. A manager may be upset that a production date is not met because of “translation delays.” In extreme cases, a client may choose to ignore a translator’s queries and use preliminary translations, or, worse, opt to work with translators/agencies that never ask questions or point out “fuzzy bits” in the source copy.

To Edit or Not to Edit?

When it comes to ambiguous (or untranslatable) source copy, a translator is confronted with more than the not-so-simple choice between editing and not editing. To begin with, the extent to which a translator should (with the client’s approval) edit source copy is an issue that is somewhat controversial. While most will agree that obvious misprints can safely be corrected and overlooked for translation, many will contend that more intricate changes, such as correcting technical terminology or rewording entire phrases to improve readability or sense, may not necessarily be up to the translator.

When we come across those (fortunately rare) cases where the source copy simply must be rewritten, we may have no choice but to request revised copy from our client. We may even have to take it upon ourselves to “redeem the untranslatable” by rewriting the source copy, rerouting it for approval, and retranslating it. (Whether we should is a matter of personal opinion.) In other (more common) cases, the source copy requires edits that, however small, may bear heavily on both the translation and the quality of the source copy.

In both cases, we should be fully prepared to justify our requests for edits, but at the same time be professional and tactful when presenting such requests to our clients. While some clients will welcome our feedback, others may not be open to editing the source copy. When a client is unwilling to edit the source copy, we may very well find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between producing accurate target copy that may not match the source copy, or producing target copy that matches the source copy but may not be accurate.

What We Can Do

While it is not essentially our place to critique our clients’ copy or always our role to correct it, it is within our reach to educate the people with whom we work regarding what we do, what we may find along the way, and how that can benefit them.

At times, it may even fall to us to remind our clients tactfully that editing copy during and post-translation is about one thing only: improving the original and working together toward a greater, better end. Ultimately, if packaging or a website features obvious misprints, if assembly instructions are confusing, if a contract leaves too much room for interpretation, if a product is pulled off the market because of misleading claims, or if someone hurts themselves because of copy written (or translated) incorrectly, those mistakes will reflect badly upon the client.

So, let’s continue being inquisitive, but just as important, let’s strive to step out of our traditional role and keep reminding and proving to the world around us that every contribution matters and that we (writers, editors, proofreaders, translators) are not competing against each other, but complete each other. And if, down the road, it leads to some of our clients learning to build extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for translation and post-translation editing, the better for us—and them.

Notes

  1. Durban, Chris. Translation: Getting it Right, 18, www.atanet.org/docs/Getting_it _right.pdf.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.

Savvy Diversification Series – Multilingual SEO: A booming niche for tech-savvy translators

The Savvy Newcomer team has been taking stock of the past year and finding that one key priority for many freelance translators and interpreters has been diversification. Offering multiple services in different sectors or to different clients can help steady us when storms come. Diversification can help us hedge against hard times.

With this in mind, we’ve invited a series of guest authors to write about the diversified service offerings that have helped their businesses to thrive, in the hopes of inspiring you to branch out into the new service offerings that may be right for you!

Finding your niche is a process. And sometimes, your niche finds you.

That’s how I came to be a specialist for search engine optimized (SEO) translations. Like many of us, I started my career in translation as a generalist, accepting any decent job that fit my English-German language pair. In the early years, I translated everything from a website for a surface coating manufacturer to juicy copy for some sort of BDSM series.

After a few years in the business, during which I became more immersed in the industry side of our profession through ATA conferences, webinars, and association memberships, I began to realize my passion and talent for creative translations. I narrowed my focus on marketing, advertising, and transcreation. That’s where I came across the need for multilingual SEO.

Rising demand for SEO in translation

A few years ago, I started receiving more inquiries for SEO translations. Some clients would simply ask for a list of keywords to be translated. Others wanted specific keywords included in the translations. Most of them provided little guidance, which made me curious about best practices in modern SEO content writing.

Before starting my translation career, I had spent about half a year as an SEO copywriter for an organic content marketing enterprise. At the time, SEO writing was very formulaic, and many practices employed then would be punished by Google and other search engines today. I knew I needed to catch up on current trends in search engine optimization, so I started immersing myself in the topic through books, webinars, and online courses.

I quickly realized that in many cases, both end customers and translation agencies had at best a basic understanding of SEO. As my expertise grew, I frequently ended up educating my clients about the finer nuances of SEO content writing.

About two years ago, I was contacted by a translation agency that had come across my LinkedIn profile. They were interested in bringing me on board for an account that included a lot of content marketing. Some of it would be transcreation, some would be original content writing, but almost all of it would include search engine optimization. Refreshingly, this agency was truly knowledgeable about SEO and even provided training for their translators. I’ve been working with them ever since, and it’s been one of my most fun and rewarding opportunities.

Need for qualified specialists

While working in this field, I noticed that there is a lack of truly qualified SEO translators. This is dangerous for the client, because incorrectly implemented SEO can result in the opposite of their desired effect: Instead of improving their search engine ranking, they will be penalized by the search engine or, in the worst case, removed completely from the results.

That’s why I decided to share my knowledge with my colleagues. I gave my first presentation at the BDÜ (German Translators Association) Conference in Bonn, Germany, in 2019, and the feedback was overwhelming. Last year, I presented a session at the ATA 61st Annual Conference, and again, it was obvious how much interest there is in this field. I currently offer an on-demand webinar for German speakers on the basics of multilingual SEO, and am in the process of creating two follow-up courses focusing on keyword localization and optimized writing.

Why SEO translations are different

SEO translation is so much more than simply plugging translated – or even transcreated – keywords into the final copy. It requires an understanding of keyword analysis, content marketing, and web writing.

Here are a few common mistakes and misconceptions surrounding multilingual SEO:

  • Translating or transcreating keywords without checking their relevancy in the target market. This requires the use of an SEO tool, such as Ubersuggest, Ahrefs or Semrush. The free Keyword Planner through Google Ads is only helpful to a limited extent, as it does not provide detailed search data. If you’re serious about offering SEO services, you won’t get far without a paid subscription of some sort.
  • Keyword stuffing. Modern SEO is no longer about using the same keyword or keyword phrase as often as possible on the page. In fact, this practice is now frowned upon by search engines and can lead to penalties.
  • Neglecting semantic optimization. Search engines have come a long way and are increasingly able to understand context and natural language. That is why well-optimized copy should include lots of synonyms, word variations and related terms to signal that the content is relevant to the search inquiry.
  • Ignoring the importance of meta elements. The content on a website is important, but to signal its relevancy to search engines, it also needs to have optimized meta elements. These include the page title, URL, ALT descriptions for images, and the meta description that is displayed in the search results listing.
  • Not optimizing for the right search engines. Yes, Google is the primary search engine across the globe, but not all countries use Google, and not all target groups within a country where Google is the market leader may prefer it. For example, Yandex is the leading search engine in Russia, and the largest search engine in China is Baidu. Microsoft’s Bing tends to be particularly popular among older audiences. And don’t forget that YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon are also search engines! Each search engine has its own algorithms and looks at different elements.
  • Writing paper prose for digital formats. People read differently on screen than they do on paper. That’s why web writing is its own art and science. It is designed for easy readability and requires an easily skimmable structure, short sentences and paragraphs, lots of subheaders, lists, etc.

Not all SEO writing is created equal

Even within SEO writing, there are differences. In addition to writing and translating optimized web copy and blog posts, I’ve recently started adapting English Amazon listings for the German market, which required me to learn yet another approach to SEO. For example, there are character restrictions to adhere to and keyword repetitions to avoid. In addition, Amazon has its own product listing guidelines that sellers need to follow.

One of the most important points about translating or writing multilingual SEO copy is that you must stay on top of the latest developments in the search engine world. What gets you on page one of Google today may cost you your ranking in a few months. Anyone interested in pursuing this niche needs to be willing to put in the time and effort to invest in continuous education and self-study.

Author bio

Marion Rhodes is an ATA-certified English to German translator, certified copywriter and multilingual SEO specialist. A native of Germany, she immigrated to the United States straight out of high school in 2001. Before starting her translation career, Marion worked as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska and as a freelance writer for various English- and German-language news publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications. When she’s not crafting copy for her clients or volunteering for ATA, she can usually be found riding one of her two horses around her home in San Diego County. For more information, visit www.imctranslations.com.

Starting at square one as a translator or interpreter: What does it take?

From time to time we at The Savvy Newcomer receive questions from our readers that make for great blog post topics. This is one of them! Here’s a question from one of our readers who’s just starting to pursue an interest in languages and wants to know how to get started.

Q: Is there any advice you could give for someone who is starting out at square one, wanting to learn another language, with the end goal of interpreting? This may be a wild question, but I have always had an interest in other languages, and cultures, so interpreting and translation work are very attractive vocations to me. How would you recommend someone starting to make that career shift?  And do you happen to know what languages are in demand, or the most useful to know?  Are there any language schools you would recommend?

A: Thanks for asking! The Savvy Newcomer has a couple of posts that may be of interest (How to become a translator or interpreter, Translation/interpreting schools, Interview with student interpreters) but it sounds like you need a bit more direction on the front end as you consider learning a language and go about getting started.

One of the key requirements is a very strong language background. Interpreting and translation, based on quite a few testing results I have seen, require skills beyond the minimum requirements of Advanced High on the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scale.

To reach that level, people usually have to get far beyond what can be accomplished in the institutional setting in the US. It generally involves at least a year in a foreign country, immersed in the language, not spending their time with the other US students who are there doing immersion programs but going to local choirs, doing some kind of local volunteer work, etc. beyond their academic work to get into the community.

However, even a very high ACTFL score is not a guarantee of translational action skills (the ability to convert the message from one language to another, whether orally or in writing). Interpreting and translation both require congruency judgment, which is an extra skill on top of that. It goes beyond being a walking dictionary. Asking any of us translators what a word means would leave us flummoxed. However, when we are given a problem to solve in context, our brains start clicking and we can be helpful.

Language proficiency is an essential prerequisite. Without language proficiency, there is not much basis for cultural understanding, according to the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) guidelines, and culture is part of the written code. For example, Americans have a tendency to sign a business letter “Pete”, but that would never fly in Argentina. It would be “Mr. Peter Brown,” and the letter would be in the formal usted (you). Anything else would just not go. So you need to understand the culture it is going to as well.

Interpreting and translating, though they purport to leave the person who does the language transfer invisible and not change the message at all, by necessity have to make these minimal adjustments so the message reaches the audience the way the original speaker or writer intended it to get there. Otherwise, it is disrespectful to the speaker or writer. We understand that and generally are doing what I would call “transcreation very light” invisibly. Clients do not like translations where this does not happen.

For example, if a client were to accidentally write “the ocean is full of fresh water,” they would call me out if I translated it that way. They would say I made a mistake in my translation. So I translate it as “the ocean is full of salt water.” I also send them a note, saying I translated it this way, and if they want it to say “fresh water” I can put it back but I would like them to be aware of the issue in the source text.

Of course, this does not apply to some translations submitted to the court as evidence. But even then, we translate so the courts can understand the writing. We typically do not reproduce grammatical mistakes to make the text illegible. It’s very hard to do, and we run the risk of overdoing it and making it a caricature… and getting sued.

So translation is more complicated than it looks. We have to consider a lot of things when you look under the hood, and we carry a lot of responsibility in the language transfer. We take it seriously. These are the opinions I’ve formed from years of experience and from conversations about these topics with my clients.

Readers, what questions do you have about getting started?

Image source: Pixabay

Glossaries for Translators: Why You Need Them

Photo Credit: Alex Read via Unsplash

This post was originally published on the Ben Translates blog. It is reposted with permission from the author.

If you are a translator and you haven’t made your own translation glossaries yet, you need to create one right now. You are not just missing out; you are doing yourself a disservice. The benefits of creating and maintaining your own glossary(ies) cannot be understated, from increased productivity to better translation quality. They are essential tools for all translators that should be put to use on every single project. Need a little convincing? Below are five reasons you shouldn’t spend another minute without creating your own glossary (or glossaries!).

Glossaries are worth their weight in gold

Conservatively, let’s say your first glossary has about 100 terms in it and that you spent an average of five minutes researching each term. If your hourly rate is $50, that glossary is “worth” just over $400. Now, picture this: my personal Chinese to English glossary, which I use for every project that crosses my desk, currently has 1,258 terms. One SAP glossary that I accessed had 16,383 terms in five languages. Imagine how much a glossary like that is worth! By maintaining a glossary, you are capturing value, like a bank account whose balance never decreases.

Glossaries help you work better and faster

Now imagine how much more quickly and accurately you could work with the help of an impeccably-researched 16,000-term glossary. As we all know, time is money. If you never have to research the same term twice, you will be able to work faster, more consistently, and ensure higher quality. Translators who want to stand a chance of competing effectively in our ever more discerning market must compete on quality, not price, and glossaries are an effective way to work both better and faster.

Glossaries are not difficult to create

Actually creating the glossary is the easy part. If you use a CAT tool, it will have an integrated feature for adding terms and their equivalents. Some products, like SDL MultiTerm Extract, will identify and extract terms from a corpus of texts for you (at a cost) while tools like memoQ QTerm, as one reader pointed out, have a free integrated term extraction feature. Don’t use a CAT tool? That’s OK! A glossary can easily be made in Excel or in a free version of an Excel-type software, such as those published by OpenOffice or Google. A glossary can be made with just three columns: source language, target language, and notes, in which you can include an explanation of one or both terms, definitions, etc. If you like, you can add any number of additional columns for context, definition, where you found the term, and the date that you added the term. You can then alphabetize the column by either the source or target language column and search for specific terms as needed.

Glossary creation can be monetized

In addition to being a great resource for yourself, glossaries are a great product that you can sell to new or existing clients. Glossaries provide you with a host of benefits, and you should be able to sell your clients on those same benefits: increased accuracy, better consistency, and the creation of a valuable asset that they own and can control (with your help, of course). Want more help convincing a client to purchase terminology management services from you? Have them read my post on glossaries for translation buyers.

Glossaries evolve

Glossaries, like languages, are living things. You will never be able to take your glossary, put a bow on it, and call it done. As you, your clients, your areas of expertise, and your knowledge evolve, your glossary will undoubtedly grow, change, and improve, too. New realities will become new glossary terms. You very well may find a better term for that entry you added last week or even last year, and that’s OK (in fact, it’s great!). As time passes, it will become an increasingly valuable asset for you and for your clients.

Have I convinced you yet? The bottom line is that glossaries are invaluable resources for all language professionals. If you don’t have one yet, make creating one the first thing you do after you are done reading this. The effort you put in will pay you back ten times over, guaranteed.

Please consider subscribing to this blog for more content like this. If you absolutely love your glossary(ies), please like this post and tell me about it by tweeting me at @Bentranslates.

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.