On Translation

and English's dominance of food media.

Before I was a food writer, before I ever thought about being a food writer, I was attempting a life of literary criticism—almost exclusively done for free—focused on literature in translation. I interviewed translators like Rosalie Knecht for The Awl, who worked with the prolific Argentine novelist César Aira; I asked Natasha Wimmer, best known for translating Roberto Bolaño’s major texts, how it felt to be known for bringing the work of “great men” into English. This fascination was inspired by the simple knowledge that there were whole other literatures out there happening, but I couldn’t access them. The great existential question of Who would I be without Kafka?

It helped that in the late aughts, thanks to interest in the work of people like Bolaño, translation was a big topic of conversation. The statistic, consistently cited, is that only three percent of the world’s literature is translated into English, which is the globe’s most dominant language for reasons of empire, politics, and business. Back in 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, told the Associated Press, "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining." And isn’t it?

Prior to that, in 2007, PEN put out a report titled, To Be Translated or Not to Be, for which Esther Allen wrote the piece, “Translation, Globalization, and English,” in which she says:

“Linguistic plurality is an essential component of this idea of literature. Literary scholars notoriously find it difficult to agree, but if there is one point on which they do converge it is the crucial importance to literature of traffic among different languages”

As perhaps you can imagine, ever since I started writing about food, I’ve wondered why translation hasn’t been a component of its media—not even three percent of it. It’s obviously a matter of resources, but it is first and foremost a matter of believing that what is produced in the United States doesn’t need to be accessible around the world and that what is being produced around the world in languages other than English isn’t worth the effort. Toward the end of its life, Lucky Peach had a translation project going with HojaSanta in Mexico, but since Lucky Peach has been purged from the internet, I can’t even remember whether the translations went the other way.

How much would it change things? If we’re going to spend so much time talking about how food unites the world, wouldn’t it be sensible to make translation a part of that exchange—at the very least, it would go quite a ways toward not excusing anyone’s ignorance around things like red palm oil or turmeric. As Cathy Erway noted in Grub Street, Bon Appétit’s recipes often noted that a non-European recipe wasn’t intimidating by adding the modifier “weeknight” but never did such a thing with a Bolognese. What if the Mapo Tofu recipe could be written in Mandarin and translated? Hell, what if the Bolognese came from someone writing in Italian? Edith Wharton wrote, per this Vulture story on corporate jargon, “Don’t you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time, not what one wants to, but what one can?” What would the world be like if we were all conveying to each other what we mean instead of just what we can?

Translation isn’t perfect, of course—we need only think of whether Kafka’s Gregor Samsa was a beetle or a vermin or something else entirely—but it’s an art, and it opens us up. As Tammie Teclemariam told James Hansen in a conversation for In Digestion, freshness and fluency can bring new eyes to food:

“Yewande Komolafe’s Nigerian recipe series potentially brought the NYT, like, an entire country wanting to click! She gave them so much and I want her to be respected for that, genuinely remunerated for that. Then contrast the Bon Appétit video that misrepresented Indian cuisine, and had so many people in the comments ruining them. Food media can be so global now, and the potential of these wonderful writers and cooks and photographers is ready, but there hasn’t been the chance to imagine the future yet.”

I’m heartened by the global perspective of a magazine like Whetstone, the bilingual English-Spanish publication Huellas, Goya Journal in India, and the forthcoming bilingual newsletter/zine from Buenos Aires–based food writer Kevin Vaughn, Matambre. But there’s still so much more to be done, so much possibility. To find out how people around the world perceive the potential of translation to change food media, I made a survey and reached out to some colleagues based outside of the States.

New Delhi, India–based writer Sharanya Deepak tells me, “I think American food media is too quick to congratulate itself on diversity, but it dismisses that the nature of American production works such that this food-media is EVERYWHERE, as are the tropes it manufactures. There's still so much work to be done. Which I'd be glad for, doing the work too, it’s the difficult but also the really fun part of being part of any kind of discourse at all.”

She notes that in India, the number of people who speak English fluently is quite small and that the “middle class” dialect, as is used in the media, can strip people of local tone, even if it’s the official language of their country. The trouble with the U.S. being so dominant yet not translation-driven, she says, means that it’s the English-speaking diasporas of cuisines who determine how they’re depicted. “Diasporas are entirely different lived experiences and move at different (often slower) paces than the country itself,” she says.

For Barcelona’s Marc Casanovas, a writer for outlets like Condé Nast Traveler España and La Vanguardia who’s currently living in Boston, translation would make a major difference in how much media could communicate with who’s actually in restaurant kitchens.

“Why not give Spanish a voice in the U.S. gastronomic media?” he says. “Does anyone in their right mind really believe that the millions of Latinos would not feel more represented and identified with content in Spanish? These days there is discussion about the lack of racial diversity in the U.S. media, where the white voice is the majority, but the debate never affects language. I personally translate the writing of many interesting people from the United States on my social media and do the translation from English to Spanish myself.” (I translated this response from Spanish to English.) He recently sent an email to the James Beard Foundation suggesting they add a media award for non-English work; they responded by thanking him for his message.

Gabriele Rosso, a food writer based in Italy who reads widely from both Italian and Anglophone media, says, “The Italian food media world is quite chauvinist and self-referential. I think it would change the way we look to food in general, with a more stratified approach to it.” Ala, in Safwa, Saudi Arabia, consumes a lot of food media produced outside his country for the same reason.

“I can only speak from my own experience, in my part of the world there is not enough information about the cultural, economic, and political influence of food,” he says. “Having media that discusses that is translated into Arabic would help raise awareness about the myriad of issues related to food.”

Mary Scherpe of Feminist Food Club, who’s based in Berlin, Germany, echoes both Rosso and Ala: “I consume more English food media than German, because there's more choice for more political, diversified, deeper content.”

That might be true, but the dominance of English food media can also lead to big mistakes. As Jennifer Feng, based in Chicago, tells me, “I think food writing written by people who have an intimate relationship with the food is extremely important to understanding it. Otherwise you get awful articles like this. The author clearly disdains the fruit, and it alarms me to think about what she would write about the people for whom this fruit is dear.” She also mentions the trap of the Western gaze:

“But it's also important to keep up with those conversations surrounding food in other countries lest we fall into the whole traditional/modern dichotomy where Western food can be innovative and modern while food from any other culture is always passed down and traditional. ‘Authentic’ is, like, the highest compliment, somehow, you can pay Chinese food in the States, but there is SO MUCH innovation in food happening in China all the time!! And I hate to see all my non-White chefs being boxed-in to the ‘traditional’ cuisine of their heritage.” 

Back in my days of hopeful literary criticism, I was a diehard fan of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction series. There were short stories about old women in Moldova in the late ’80s becoming obsessed with Brazilian telenovelas and shouting about Perestroika (“Auntie Frosea” by Iulian Ciocan, in the 2011 edition); there were stories translated from languages I didn’t even know about, like Montenegrin and Estonian.

What that means is that the translators are out there, likely ready for work, and where there is a language, there are writers, and where there are writers, one can assume there is food. How much more accurately would the culinary world be depicted if we let people speak in the language that allows them to say what they want, not just what they can?

For Friday’s paid-subscriber post, I’ll be speaking with chef and writer Zoe Adjonyoh about her book, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, the marginalization of African cuisine, ingredient sourcing, and more. Subscribe here.

My friends, I don’t believe I published a damn thing last week aside from this newsletter, though I did finally see my TIME piece in print. I have two imminent deadlines and only one of the pieces mostly written, meaning I’m in a state of mental agony that is causing me and my loved ones much anguish… though I know once the writing starts to flow, it’ll come so easily that I’ll be like, “Why was I being such an asshole?” Such is the cycle of writing: torment, productivity, release.

Exciting news, though! Heated at Medium will be re-publishing two of my newsletters per month—starting with today’s—which is wonderful because they’re sharing them with their audience, as well as providing me with editorial and financial support that will allow me to up the ante for what I can write every week.

I am finishing up Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno and diving into Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisí Aríbisálá. Aside from that, I’ve been reading a lot of academic-type writing on translation (and telenovelas, before scrapping my original framing for this essay), as you might imagine.

Pictured above is mushroom, eggplant, and red onion (all Puerto Rico–grown!) roasted with shawarma-esque spices—cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, turmeric, a little chili—which we ate on flatbread drizzled with tahini and garnished with cilantro. We paired it with Txakolina. Then I made gianduja according to Sweet + Salty by my friend Lagusta, using deliciously citrusy local chocolate, but it kind of came out texturally like shit because my supermarket hazelnuts seemed to have no oils left in their little bodies to release. But it tastes good!!! I’m going to start collecting sea almonds.

The “Recommending” section is going to be moved to Wednesday, where it will be coupled with a discussion thread. This week, I’ll recommend more of my favorite literature in translation and we’ll discuss global visions for food media. The first will be free.