Translator Problems I: How to Translate Food

As has been mentioned numerous times on this blog, many translation issues arise at the intersection of the vast number of different cultures and ways of life that exist on our planet. One area of language for which this is particularly true is food: a direct expression of culture, translating the names of what we eat is often a challenge for even the most seasoned translator.

Due to globalization and the cultural exchange it has brought with it, some foods are known in most areas of the world by their original name. ‘Pizza,’ ‘cupcakes’ and ‘fajitas’ are all examples of foods whose immense popularity has led to their names being integrated into other languages.

But what about foods that are less well-known and whose names require translating? Well, as is usually the case in translation, there’s no one simple answer, but a few different options to consider.

Since I’m a Spanish-English translator, I’ll use an example from Latin America: empanada. First of all, for those who aren’t familiar with this food, empanadas are small, dough parcels with a variety of different fillings, including beef, chicken, cheese and onion and tuna. They are baked or fried, and are eaten in many countries across Latin America.

So, what are our options when it comes to translating this word into English?

Well, we could leave it in the original language and italicize it – like I have done here – to show that it is a word borrowed from a foreign language. While this allows us to maintain the essence of the original word, we can’t be sure that the reader will understand what we’re referring to. (Although some communities in the US, for example, may well be familiar with the word due to the country’s Hispanic population.)

Another option would be to leave the word in the foreign language, but give a description briefly explaining the word, or, depending on the register of the target text, we could add a footnote and provide our explanation there. However, the disadvantage of this is that the description may affect the overall flow of our translation.

Our last option would be to find a way of expressing the notion of an empanada in the target language. If we’re translating it into English, we could perhaps call it a ‘small pie,’ or, if our audience is British, a ‘small Cornish pasty,’ as this is a British food which is actually very similar to its Latin American cousin. But, as I think you can see, the true essence of what our humble empanada started life as has been lost in translation somewhat.

As we’ve seen, the language of sustenance is one of the many thorns in the translator’s side. If you know of any more foodie words – in any language – which are particularly difficult to translate, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.