“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”Mark Twain
A friend of ours, a restauranteur here in Arles, asked us to translate, or rather take a look at his English translation of their French/Lebanese menu. He’s a brilliant chef, it’s a wonderful restaurant, we’ve been regular patrons for over 15 years, first under the original owners, and since they retired under our friend who had worked as a sous chef there, and has now taken it to a whole new level, bringing his wife’s Lebanese traditions into the mix. Our son is best friends with their son, we eat there whenever we can, and stop by simply for drinks and talk often.
They had developed their most recent menu, and wanted us to review it for spelling, accuracy, and any cross-cultural pieges (traps). They knew we’re writers, and that I, well…really like food. So they sent us their English menu, and the first Entrée (appetizer) listed was:
I was somewhat puzzled as to what that might be describing, so I requested they send over their French menu as well, and this was the original:
Pressé de Paleron de Boeuf / Foie Gras / Pomme de Terre / Granité Cornichon
And this is where the fun began. Literally translated, yes, ‘Paleron de Boeuf’ is ‘Beef Chuck’, but…I wasn’t sure that it was the most appetizing way to sell the dish. “Pressé’ is a bit more complicated, it can mean a couple of things, from how the beef is prepared to how it’s presented. In this case, after figuring out what he was doing with it, I suggested, ‘Thinly Sliced Braised Beef Shoulder’, which was equally apt, and arguably more appetizing than ‘Beef Chuck’. Foie Gras and Pomme de Terre were simple enough, leaving only the granite pickles. ‘Granité’ is the French version of the Italian ‘Granita’, which is basically flavored, shaved ice, sort of like a coarse sorbet (‘Granita’ comes from ‘granular’ – ‘grainy’). It’s in essence a glorious strata of beef, foie gras, and potatoes, topped with a dash of the cornichon sorbet, so we ended up with:
“Thinly Sliced Braised Beef Shoulder, layered with Foie Gras, and Potatoes.
Garnished with Cornichon (tart pickle) Sorbet“
And it got me thinking about all the questionable menu translations I’ve seen in various countries around the world. In Shanghai, I opted to pass on the ‘Fried Mice Balls’ (was it mice rolled into balls or more of a ‘crunchy testicular caviar’ thing?), but in a small town in France I did order the “Nuts of Saint Jack with Coral” (Noix de Saint Jacques avec Corail). Anyone who has traveled will have countless examples. It’s a favorite drinking game with travelers, “I was in this café in Bangkok, and you won’t believe what they had on the menu….”
Menu translation is an art. I’m not necessarily an artist. Sometimes it’s easy to understand how an unintentionally comic listing came to pass – I’m pretty sure that ‘Mice Balls’ was simply a typo for ‘Rice Balls’, but it makes for a funny story. I’ve also seen ‘Crap Cakes’ on offer. Sometimes it’s a case of literal translation going awry, as in the case of “Paleron de Boeuf”; sometimes it goes further awry, I’ve seen “Crottin de Chèvre Chaud” translated as “Warm Goat Dung Cheese”, which is technically (linguistically) correct – there are numerous small goat’s milk cheeses in France that are the shape and size of a ball of dung, the French word for which is ‘crottin’, and that IS what the French call both the dung ball and the cheese, still….
Food is not just language (and I have seen ‘Langue de Boeuf’ – ‘Beef Tongue’ – translated as ‘Beef Language’), it is culture, it is context, it is association, and memory. There are ideas, traditions, ingredients, and techniques that exist in one culture, and not another, and literal translation may be impossible. Translating ‘Ris de Veau’ as ‘Calf’s Pancreas’ is correct, but not necessarily the best marketing ploy – this is why the term ‘sweetbreads’ was invented. It’s not solely the preserve of highbrow foods either – if you put ‘Macaroni au Fromage’ on a French menu, a literal translation of ‘Mac ‘n Cheese’, it’s absolutely accurate, but does not carry any of the connotations or memories of a culture raised on childhood comfort food, late-night dorm room noshes, strapped-budget nostalgia. It’s simply a certain type of pasta with cheese on it, and where’s the fun in that? ‘Appetizing’ goes way beyond description and taste, It’s Proustian associations, madeleines and tea, familiarity and expectations. Translating a menu (successfully, accurately?) is translating the context of the dish.
There are indications that it doesn’t much matter in any case. Once someone sits down at a restaurant there’s little indication that an awkward, or even comically incomprehensible translation will change their mind. A study in Psychology Today (July 2016) – two survey groups, one given a competently translated menu, another given the same menu but with more challenging interpretation – demonstrated that a menu loaded with misspellings, malapropisms, crap-cakes, and mice balls has statistically zero effect on the perception of the dining experience. For the most part, diners cut restaurants a lot of slack, knowing that non-native translators will often make understandable mistakes, or that Google Translate will absolutely accurately convert ‘Salade de Crevettes et Avocat’ to ‘Shrimp and Lawyer Salad’. (The French use the same word, same pronunciation for both the fruit and the profession – context.)
It still leaves for some interesting considerations – another item on our friends’ menu was:
Loup Entier Grillée avec Sauce Vierge (pour 2 pers)
Of which a literal translation would read, “Whole Grilled Wolf, with Virgin Sauce” (For 2 people, ‘cause, ya know…it’s a whole wolf). Now, ‘loup’, is short for ‘loup de mer’, wolf of the sea, or what an Anglophone would call sea bass, so that’s easy enough. The ‘Virgin Sauce’ needs some finessing, as it might lead one to wonder how many virgins were sacrificed to prepare it. In actuality it’s a fairly common French accompaniment for seafood, a sort of uncooked salsa of tomatoes, capers, shallots, and vinegar.
Whole Grilled Sea Bass with Fresh Tomato Salsa
The only other challenge on the menu was a dessert, which started off simple enough:
Granola, Strowberrie, Avocado…
And then closed with:
The French for this last was ‘Brousse de Brebis” for which Google Translate will indeed give you ‘Sheep’s Bush’. It’s also the name for a soft, whey-based sheep’s milk cheese, along the lines of ricotta. So rather than risk the possible connotations I suggested ‘Soft Sheep’s Milk Cheese’
There’s a Collège International des Traducteurs Littéraires (International College of Literary Translators) in Arles. It is housed in the building that was one-time the hospital where Van Gogh was taken after he cut off his ear. You’d recognize the paintings he made during his stay. They host residencies, and sometimes, presumably, as visiting scholars walk the jardin and circle the fish pond, they discuss the vagaries of culinary translation, and the menus they see around town. And maybe some of them are tempted by the whole grilled wolf.
“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”Anthony Burgess