Atlas Obscura recently had published an interesting article on mistranslation—specifically, menu ones. Emily Monaco, a culinary translator, was explaining how challenging menus can be to translate, from the odd but understandable “ink fish” in place of squid to “stir-fried two winters,” which refers to two winter vegetables, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. And simple typos have given the world many restaurant signs that say “Human Taste” instead of “Hunan Taste.”
The article is well worth reading, as it points out issues that arise with the international varieties of fermented dairy, for example: Should it be “strained yogurt cheese” or labneh? Should quark be called a “German fresh cheese”?
A related problem is that food names or terms often have positive associations in one culture, but nowhere else. Cubans love ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish whose name literally translates to “old clothes”) and Mexicans enjoy tacos sudados (literally “sweaty tacos”).
No man is a (floating) island
As the article points out, food information is something that is startlingly hard to convey across cultures, because there’s a lot packed into it.
For example, Fred Pouillot, the French-born bilingual founder of the Foodist cooking school in Paris, posits three possible translations for the classic French comfort food dish, ile flottante.
Translation one: Floating Island. Good luck understanding what that even is intended to mean.
Translation two: Custard, Poached Meringue, Caramel Sauce. Descriptive, but not very emotional.
Translation three: A cherished childhood memory. A light and creamy vanilla-based custard is topped with a very light meringue. That meringue is actually made with one-third of the regular amount of sugar used in meringues, and is only lightly poached. And while it is floating atop the light custard (actually called Crème Anglaise), it is itself topped with a hardened caramel—cooked not too long, so it is rich in flavor but not bitter. And it is left to harden so that when you push your spoon into the floating island, you first break a bit of that caramel, push through the fluffy meringue, and finish with your spoon full of the crème anglaise. Three flavors and textures, which would make you believe a ménage à trois is a great idea in the kitchen.
The article also linked to Atlas Obscura’s Facebook page, where I found these gems: