On Wednesdays, we’re doing recommendations + discussions—usually for paid subscribers. This week, I promised my favorite literature in translation, so I made a list on Bookshop for browsing (with the caveat that I don’t have all my books in San Juan yet to draw from and was bound to what’s available!). As with all my book lists, I’ll add to it.To build on Monday’s essay, I want to ask: From where you stand, how would translation change food media? How would you like it to change food media? Would it change anything? Excited to chat.
As a Russian immigrant, I think about translation a lot. Writing about Russian food in English is sometimes exhausting, how do I translate these concepts without focusing on the White American gaze and consumption, without having to make it "digestable" for Americans? Sometimes I wish to drop explaining fully, stop italicizing "foreign" dishes, and let others do the research if needed.
Absolutely it would change food media! I second much of what has already been said about the potential of translation but also some of its pitfalls. As Hsiao-Ching Chou and Rida have pointed out here often an English word choice always entails some level of interpretation risks collapsing nuanced words in other languages into simplified categories, so I think it matters very much who is doing the translating, their relationship to the cuisine being translated, who is editing that translation etc. If done well, though, it could expand English culinary vocabularies to reflect the nuances of other traditions which would be wonderful.
The cynic in me fears that more translation *could* wind up reflecting the same problems we already have, if work selected for translation was cherry-picked or selectively interpreted to avoid challenging existing paradigms. What gets translated and who translates are not neutral questions, and as enormous as the potential is for translation, simply because something is written in another language doesn't necessarily guarantee something new or different (this speaks to Diana Buendia's point below), so I think we have to approach translation as a comprehensive process that includes writers, translators, editors, as well as mechanisms for conversation, feedback, accountability. Something that is often discussed in my own field is the way that often Arab novels are sometimes read in the US in translation not as creative or literary works, but as pseudo-ethnographic windows into an "exotic" other culture (and you can imagine how that impacts what does/doesn't get translated and published by major presses, what kinds of images get put on the cover, where they are placed in bookstores, etc). I suspect this is also a risk when it comes to translating food-related material: I wouldn't want to see a recipe plucked out of another language and divorced from the author's description or context, but I can sadly see that happening in food media (sorry, so cynical). But Alicia I so appreciate your piece and this conversation, and as a historian & translator, it has helped me think through how in my own work, I can do a better job of finding, translating, and drawing on food writing in Arabic not only for primary sources but as vital perspectives critically, theoretically, & aesthetically when it comes to my writing and on my syllabi.
I have grappled with this question in my work reporting from Pakistan but writing in English for an audience predominantly living in Europe and North America. I conduct interviews with people based there in Urdu (the national language) and I do the translations to English myself. However, while translating I am conscious that I am not simply translating but also interpreting the words of my sources to fit into an Anglophone framework so something is getting lost in translation as Urdu is a much more expressive language. There is also a broader point on who gets to access food media in a post-colonial society like Pakistan where proficiency in English is to a large extent predicated on class but is also ties into food writing in the country also being seen as largely lifestyle focused than anthropological, historical and socio-political. I realise I'm not exactly answering the question but just sharing thoughts on the topic.
Translation is a powerful way to dismantle "authenticity" and notion of a single, perfect ideal for a dish. Jennifer Feng's quote about the Western gaze and authenticity resonated so much with me. Hong Kong and Taiwan food bloggers that I follow find comfort in "traditional" dishes, but seek "creativity" — chefs and cooks riffing on these traditional dishes with new ingredients or methods. I especially love that different versions of the same dish can co-exist and be admired for their differences. And how liberating would it be for Western home cooks and curious minds to realize that they don't have to be shackled to one single interpretation of mapo tofu!
Translation also reveals that cultures are not monoliths. I feel like Western food media has yet to fully realize this, and sweeping dishes under "Chinese food" is about as unhelpful as describing cacio e pepe as "European". Stories by the diaspora deserve a place on the magazine rack, but isn't the only lens through which to view a food culture. Multiple truths can exist and often can't be neatly categorized into SEO-friendly search terms. Translation might be the key to breaking up these monopolies and giving stories back to the cooks and eaters.
I honestly never really thought of this until you wrote about it which is one of the things I love about your writing. I think it would be interesting to see how food is changing in other places and how different/similar it may be to what is happening here.
I feel like it would be a powerful way to connect media around the world as well..it is a little shocking that were are living in the 21st century and this isn't a thing actually.
You know when I lived in Korea, it was interesting how cut off I felt from the United States and western world. I imagine maybe sometimes you might feel that way in P.R., even though now we have Twitter and things like that. Translation would probably make the world feel more connected.
I actually love learning all about translations and when I was younger and played more video games, I would follow some blogs that analyzed how things were changed between Japan and U.S. and how sometimes that made no sense or context was lost. I miss learning about that now.
Another thing this has me thinking about is the George Floyd protests and how they went global, we could understand how the world perceived it better with translations. Usually the international news English sites are just copied and pasted Reuters, AP, and NYT articles.
Chinese is so much more concise and lyrical. I had my mother write the preface to my cookbook in Chinese, because her writing is phenomenal. We then translated it to English and printed both pieces. The Chinese titles of my first book and forthcoming veg book have so much more story in them.
There are not enough words in English that describe the differences among dumplings, noodles, textures, etc., etc. I’ve had to explain too many times to editors why all dumplings can’t be grouped into one category and why red bean soup is different from cabbage soup and why they don’t go in the same chapter.
Same goes for the Chinese names of Chinese restaurants, dishes, etc. People are missing out because they don’t know that the actual name of a Chinese restaurant means “four seasons of wafting aromas” vs the banal “spicy or not spicy.”
These are just some of my complaints.
Change? I want acknowledgment that the nuances in (food) languages don’t always have 1:1 translations and that English has to work harder to convey a concept/philosophy/culture/story properly. It takes different people in power who have the right mindset about how language is as much an ingredient of (food) writing as the subject. Translation would give us far more texture and richness.
I appreciate your writing on this so much, Alicia. It brings to mind how intention and impact needs to be factored into translation. One of my favorite examples of translation is Ken Liu's work in translating the Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu's work, The Three Body Problem. Because there's so much contextual elements that are embedded in the written work (in Chinese), especially wordplays and syntaxes and cultural context, it isn't a straightforward translation work. Yet, I don't know how to describe it, but Ken Liu's translation kept true to a lot of the essence of the original text. It felt lovingly done, lovingly held. I've also seen this sort of love extended to his other translation works (e.g. now two anthologies of short sci-fi stories by Chinese authors).
I recognize a lot of the work he puts into the translations because I have enough reference from my own culture to pick up on them as I read (in English), and I wonder how might his works read to someone without the context. He gives you enough information to work with to build on things you don't know, so perhaps one will still pick up on that.
So to tie it back to food media, perhaps there's a way where the translations are lovingly done with attention to context (cultural, linguistic, to the persons and communities involved, etc)? I can't wait to see what other folks have as examples in the food media world to explore what some of these might feel/sound like.
It would allow for food to be expressed in its most authentic form of language and by doing so, empowering the origins from which many of our foods come from. Therefore, educating people on its roots and further connecting us through food. Providing a translation tells a different story, even if its just symbolic
I'd say there needs to be a strong understanding of local publishing and the media landscape in order for a translation project to be rigorous, echoing the point made by Sharanya Deepak in the newsletter about how we repeat tropes from U.S. media. For example, Latin American media is plagued by some of the same problems - corporate and corrupt owners, whitewashing, click-bait - and budgets tend to be smaller (so not a profitable full-time career). So when we think about sourcing writing from Latin American countries and translating, it's best to be in conversation with people locally who keep in mind community-oriented initiatives, publications, local conversations outside of what corporate media offers locally. If not we end up making the same mistakes! I've seen it happen with music writing. I am convinced more than ever that the bulk of the work has to be local - committed people on the ground building up and supporting the community and local food systems, reporting to the locals. The translation (from curious / generous U.S. editors) would just be a welcome byproduct.
I remember when the NYT put out their job posting for the 52 Cities series. They were looking for a writer who could "tell the story" of those places. That's so indicative of the arrogance and frivolousness of food / culture / travel writing. How can you tell the story of a place where you aren't embedded and have only spent a few days in? Translation, or simply empowering people who are embedded and dedicated to a place, is the only way to stop the colonization of narrative and create stories that begin to "tell the story".
What I wouldn't give to have El Cocinero PuertoRiqueño translated into English!!! What I wouldn't give to have most of the cross references on Puerto Rican food translated into English. My stories would be written a lot faster. But, then those references would also be more readily available to people who don't deserve to read them. Yeah, I said it.
Absolutely! When we translate, we have to consider someone else's way of thought, and THEN considers what is the purest way to express it to a new audience. The duty of care that the translator has is tremendous. Often, things can't be directly translated, so there is this search for feeling, for sentiment. Those searches are what brings a new voice/perspective to light because it naturally allows us to express things in NEW ways even if we are using old words.
When we talk about food if we can get a better understanding of technique and history from someone in another country/language, why wouldn't we use their words? Wouldn't it yield something more true?
I just think about going to Costa Rica and asking my aunts and grandmother to teach me how to cook--naturally in Spanish-- and then I would take those recipes and translate them to my friends who were visiting or just wanted to know how to make something at home. Food media/"leaders" are already doing this when they go to other cultures/countries and interview or observe food practices. Why not let people from those places just speak for themselves, and then hopefully find someone caring enough to give it a new audience in a new language?
When you grow up bilingual/biracial/bicultural, you learn quickly from a young age that there is more than one right way to do, say, cook things. Food media today so so much about putting people on pedestals and being like "no no no this is the authority and what they say goes." Translation work in its nature, directly challenges that. I'm here for it. LET'S GO!!!
This is such a good question, the kind you know is good because there is no immediate, "that's it!" answer. As an English lit major, I've always thought of my relationship to translation in terms of poetry more than food. But my relationship with texts in translation and translating texts is much more complicated than that - I studied European languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Latin), but then I moved to Asia (Korea and now Vietnam), and deeper thinking makes me realize how similar the issues of both poetry and food writing are. I cook from books written in French and Korean, as well as those in English. But I've never thought about this as cooking in translation, just cooking - which I now think is ridiculous. As a home cook with a deep love of history, I would love to have more directly translated works - both those that show the origin of food traditions and those that show the current trends and evolutions. I think that the question of authenticity, when produced for and directed at a white audience, often remains in the realm of the former and ignores the food lives that people are living now. Many of the young Koreans I know don't/can't to cook, but have active food lives, interests and tastes that are very different from their mothers and grandmothers who were amazing cooks. I'd love to see both of those represented in translated works from all sorts of cuisines/ food cultures. I hope it would give both sides of the translation a broader and deeper knowledge of a valuable part of themselves.
I think food sites should work on having that translation button on top of the site. Sometimes I want to see a local take on say an Italian or French recipe that hasn’t been washed down, if it’s a tourism board page it might have that USA translation flag, if not luckily I can try and read it in that language and understand it. But that’s not the case if I’m looking for an Indian or Moroccan recipe, I’m sure other people look at USA sites in hopes of finding cool recipes and encounter the same obstacle. I think a translation button should be a thing, in my opinion it would also generate more jobs
I would LOVE to get translated recipes and food media content from people who belong to the community that invented/developed/identify with a cuisine. I learned when I moved to Thailand in 2013 how vastly different Thai recipes in English were to the traditional (and often non-negotiable) ingredient lists in Thai. Which is why before moving there I could love "Thai food" and yet never have tasted proper Thai dishes. I accept that this is true for every kind of national-regional-local cuisine on earth. When I cook, I now look for recipes in the language of origin (bc Google Translate is sufficient) but if a greater array of content were available I'd read that too. https://twitter.com/alisonaglitter/status/1261634183501316097
I am *ALL* for translation––I think it would broaden food media so much to be able to see what people in different cultures and countries are saying about food. To give an example of what I'm familiar with––I live and work in Japan. There is a wealth of food writing––it is a huge, huge genre––people take food very seriously here, as the average quality of restaurant food suggests, and what English-language media covers is only scratching the surface. Food is described in ways so different to English (far more onomatopoeia for example), and it would be fascinating for everyone read in English what Japanese people write about not just their own cuisine, but other cultures cuisines, as a counterpoint to the Western gaze. The way some of it operates in such a strongly Japanese bubble is, in itself, fascinating––very little catering to a Western audience if any, which I appreciate as a native English speaker. What I particularly love about all the food books, mooks, magazines, and between you can find here is how *nerdy* they are––they will often dive spectacularly deep into the nitty gritty of just one subject, e.g. the aesthetics of food arrangement in tea kaiseki, the discussions of different types of shari, etc––and I suspect a lot of that is due to the strength of print and reading culture generally.
Translation rights would be a complicating factor, though.
Coming from the world of bread baking and working in larger artisan bakeries-all the white bakers had access to a range of bread and baking books, while the majority Mexican staff did not.
And then a few years ago I had a conversation with someone who was designing “master” classes for a video course for the breadbakers guild of America and I asked if the classes would be in Spanish, as most bakeries have a Spanish speaking staff and was met with a. blank look and told that was never considered. I don’t know if that project ever got off the ground, but I couldn’t believe the tone deafness of it.
So yes to translation into other languages besides English and definitely yes to translation of books from abroad into English.
It’s been almost 20 years as a Colombian immigrant in NYC. I often catch myself looking up recipes in Spanish if I am cooking something from a Spanish-speaking country, and English for anything else. Shortly, I fall on the trap of “authenticity” when convenient. Food media has its own history with its established audience that folks like you are trying to decenter, or at least call us out in our BS. So I think that, similar to Sebastiano, if translation in food media can be used to challenge our comfy position of consumers, however conscious, it is imperative that not only we tell the “authentic” stories, but that such work can elucidate the social realities and complexities of people. We still operate under the veil of nation-state-as-reality, but obviously the reality is much different. Translation in food media can and should contest capitalist narratives of consumption, cosmopolitanism, and sustainability. It needs to make it difficult for consumer capitalism to package, rebrand it, and sell it as ethical innovation.
I loved your piece on translation. I for one do not speak/read another language, but I love seeing things in their native tongue. I also think it would spark interesting conversation. I think of how many times people discuss different ways to translate a single word from one language into another. It also helps to give a person context into the food or the way that recipe came to be. I for one would love to see it more even if I can't understand it. It might spark me to learn more languages and isn't that the fun of food from around the world. It sparks adventure and learning and curiosity. Great article.
I believe translations are important to give voice and real context with the food. Language is so interconnected with food products and techniques, and in many cases the abolition of a language has caused the loss of the use of certain plants. Translations are tricky, as it is necessary for those who translate the piece to have the same knowledge and context of those who wrote it to understand the subtleties of the words. Yet, it is vital if we are going to advance the food conversation beyond the white-washing of dishes, and the marginalization of people from whom we strip knowledge and techniques for our own benefit.
This topic is so important and layered because the age of the original text has bearing on the material, what was available at the time what substitutions or practices are tradition or adaptive. What is a source and how many sources in how many languages should we consult. I love watching videos in languages I don’t speak on repeat trying to understand. You are touching on something so deep and nuanced
In Brazil I often hear people complaining about Indian or Chinese food smelling "weird" and how the flavors are too strong etc etc. This conversation usually goes in the typical xenophobic direction without a lot of consideration of how certain food traditions were born of necessity and how adaptable the palette can be. In São Paulo, there are a lot of Italian immigrant decedents, so praise and the standard of "good food" is based on Italian dishes. The same conversations are a bit dull to me, and translation of recipes beyond basic pasta dishes would do a lot. I've seen some Brazilian-fusion (eg with Thai curry) at some higher-end restaurants and it would be nice if those sorts of recipes were more available in food media to the general public—expanding palettes and hopefully squashing out some of the more racist comments.
Thank you for your piece on translation, it is great.
I am from Italy but currently live in the UK, and for me both countries need more translation in food, albeit for different reasons; the UK food media, or at least the bubble I am familiar with (which could speak more to the narrowness of my horizons than to the limit of UK food media in general), targets one specific audience: white middle-class people. The relationship with the "foreign" in these sources is always constructed along one route: decontextualize it from its cultural and political milieu, repackage it so it's less intimidating, and resell it to the consumer who can then add it to its virtual toolbox of foods they "engage" with, and tell themselves stories as to how progressive and cosmopolitan they are. Translating food media from other countries could be used as a way to ensure that the food itself remains rooted in its context, that its story is told by those who eat it because they care and not because they want to state something; in other words, it could tell people here about food from another culture while leaving it centred in that culture, rather than forcefully repositioning in the UK context so it's more palatable to the local audience. To do this, the translation should be done as a work of interpretation and bridging, and the original text should be easily accessible; the act of translation should be the point, not just a tool to extract information from a non-English source.
Italy is so depressingly self-centred when it comes to food that even a little bit of translation could potentially go a long way (maybe this exists already and I am ignorant of it). The food media I have access to does look beyond the country's borders, but always in an attempt to map and follow "trends", ensuring that each foreign food is measured (and found lacking) against the Italian tradition; I am unsure as to where this extreme level of insecurity comes from, and why do we need to constantly tell ourselves that our food is "the best". In this context, maybe translating food media from abroad could help shift the focus of the conversation away from Italian food (removing the always present element of comparison), and centre different cultures and culinary creations; introducing foreign foods as worthy of interest not as a consequence of how they measure "against" Italian food, but simply because they are other from Italian food. Again, the act of translation would need to be central and would need to be explicitly recognised (and valued).
Would love to hear other thoughts on this!
As you ask Alicia, the whole foodmedia thing has gone off in the wrong direction because it is disconnected from the farms, the fields, the growers and producers on which it depends...when you have a blogger writing about a generic product like say butter becase seo says it is trending and posting this in a virtual world...it has no meaning!!! There is no eating involved....