Perspective, Translation

A Tasty Introduction to Culinary Translation

by Anne-Charlotte Giovangrandi

What better time than right before the holidays to hear about food and cooking terms? For NCTA’s last webinar of 2020, NCTA member Olivia Singier Texier presented “What’s Cooking – An Introduction to Culinary Translation.” On December 12, 2020, she delighted her Zoom audience by narrating her journey to reuniting two of her passions, food and writing, and giving a glimpse into her specialization.

Olivia was born and raised in Dunkirk, a coastal city in northern France, from a family of cooks and gastronomes. She studied Literature and History at La Sorbonne (Paris) before working as a teacher for a dozen years. A world traveler for the past ten years, she has expanded her knowledge of various ethnic cuisines while living in China and Australia before settling in San Francisco in 2017. She is currently finishing her master’s thesis on culinary translation at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

Culinary translation: a real specialization?

Popular interest in food and cooking hasn’t stopped growing over the years, thanks to globalization and the proliferation of food-related content in cookbooks, cooking and nutrition publications, TV programs, and foodie blogs. Cookbooks are being published and translated at a rate never before seen. As a result, culinary translation is becoming a niche specialization that should have a bright future for linguists who, like Olivia, also happen to be cooks and food lovers. At first sight, it would be easy to dismiss it as a specialization – it may seem that anyone could improvise as a culinary translator (and many do, unfortunately, as evidenced by the often hilarious “bilingual” restaurant menus). Translating poulet-frites, pasta al limone, or ensalada de fruta appears easy enough, right? Not so fast. As Olivia demonstrated over this two-hour workshop, culinary translation, like any specialization, requires specific skills, some preliminary work, and lots of practice. Food labels, menus, or cookbooks translated by a machine or an amateur translator can have hilarious consequences, but such blunders can also be devastating to a brand’s image, or worse, put a person’s life in danger (think of improperly translated allergens, for instance).

After reminding us of the cultural importance of food and cuisine all over the world, Olivia gave us an interesting lesson on the history of cookbooks and their evolution over the centuries, from the first mention of recipes on clay tablets 3,000 years ago to the unique, thematic cookbooks of today. We then broke into small groups to discuss what each of us thought made a cookbook appealing and successful.

Technical skills required

Translating for the culinary industry implies an extensive knowledge, in both source and target languages, of culture-specific items such as utensils (cutlery and crockery), appliances, ingredients, measurements, and cooking techniques or processes. Precision is key when you translate recipes, and you need to have the right utensil for each job. You will need to know their names in your source language and their equivalent in your target language. The same goes for ingredients, which obviously vary from country to country and even from region to region. For example, meat cuts are not only different in English and French, but also in US and UK English. The same goes for dairy products. If you translate from or into US/UK English, you will need to learn about the different imperial measures and their correspondence in the metric system. Finally, you need to have some knowledge of the various cooking techniques to translate them properly. Finding or making your own conversion charts to use when you translate is therefore a prerequisite to accepting projects in the field, as is access to trustworthy reference dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Creative skills required

Through multiple examples taken from the book she translated for her master’s thesis, Olivia showed us the many challenges to translating a cookbook. Beyond the translation of the recipes themselves, you might have to do some research about the intended audience of the book in order to guide your translation choices. Regarding the translation of recipes themselves, Olivia focused on five specific challenges:

  1. Translating the name of the recipes: for example, coping with cultural references or puns.
  2. Dealing with imperial measures: Conversions are required, of course, but then decisions have to be made. A cup is precisely 237 ml, but is that what you want to write in a recipe you translate from English into French? There are conventions and norms to be followed, but will a liquid volume rounded as expected actually work in the recipe you are translating?
  3. Dealing with brands that don’t exist in the target country: Can you find an equivalent? This requires expertise in both the source and target country’s products.
  4. Dealing with ingredients that are unavailable in the target country: Can you find an equivalent? Again, this requires a thorough knowledge of ingredients in both your source and target countries. If no equivalent exists, do you choose to add a translator’s note explaining how to make your own with products more easily found in your target country?
  5. Making translation invisible: a more general challenge not particular to this specialization. Norms and conventions in the target language need to be followed, and adaptation and localization are a must.

So you want to be a culinary translator?

What does it take to add culinary translation to your résumé? As previously noted, a passion for food and cooking is essential. You will also need to educate yourself on the subject by any means possible: watch TV shows, take in-person or online cooking classes, subscribe to magazines, and become a member of social media groups (such as the Foodie Translators group on Facebook) – all in both your source and target languages. Translating recipes involves a lot of research, so some preliminary work is required. Otherwise, you could end up spending hours translating just a few dozen words. Start making glossaries right away, and feed them regularly with what you learn in your readings, classes, and translation work (including context to avoid the risk of mistranslations). Make sure to list that specialization on your résumé and market your services to agencies that serve the food industry. To make yourself known, you can start a blog to write about food or publish your own recipes.

What types of material can a culinary translator expect to translate? The list is endless: Cookbooks and recipes, of course, but also restaurant menus, nutrition-related websites, food manufacturers’ catalogs, food and wine magazines, product labels, and so on.

Had Olivia’s presentation taken place with a live audience in a physical location, no doubt it would have included the discovery of some exotic ingredients or the tasting of dishes prepared by the presenter or the participants. An in-person follow-up workshop will hopefully take place when Covid-19 has become an obsolete word and our social lives have returned to normalcy. In the meantime, Olivia’s webinar is available for purchase on the NCTA website.

Anne-Charlotte Giovangrandi

An English to French translator since 2010, Swiss native Anne-Charlotte Giovangrandi specializes in translating patient-facing medical documents and transcreating marketing/advertising content. During the first half of 2020, she spent a lot of her time in advocacy work to help get translators exempted from “the gig worker law” (CA AB 5). She currently serves in the NCTA Board as Secretary. She is an avid swimmer and a creative cook, using her husband and two teenage sons as guinea pigs for her new recipes.