Can food really be translated from one culture to another? A guest post by Louise Taylor

Food is one of the most fascinating aspects of any culture. For those who like to travel, sampling the tastes and scents of another country is a key part of beginning to understand that society.

Many holidaymakers seek to recreate the foods they’ve eaten on their travels once they’re back home, only to find that the dish they’ve created doesn’t taste quite like it should. Even with the perfect ingredients, attempting to translate a recipe from one culture to another can be difficult.
Localized food. Photo: Eleonora

An English person can cook a recipe following the instructions in a Spanish cookbook. However, that English cook won’t have the benefit of having grown up with the deep history of Spanish cuisine. They won’t have smelled simmering pots and been given titbits whilst getting under their mother’s feet in a Spanish kitchen.

This can cause problems for even the most celebrated chefs – the UK’s Jamie Oliver managed to offend almost the whole of Spain when he included chorizo in his paella recipe!

Recipes that are taken from one culture and reproduced in another instead tend to lead to a blended version of both countries’ gastronomic heritage. Louisiana Creole is the perfect example, blending influences from French, Spanish, Indian, Caribbean, Portuguese, Greek, Canarian, West African, Amerindian, German, Italian and Irish cultures into the staple diet of the United States. The result is a cuisine that translates elements of each of those influencing countries into something new and unique. It’s delicious, but it’s also an impure version of the original dishes.

Food is also modified to suit different tastes when it’s taken from one culture to another. Chinese food in England tastes very different from Chinese food in Portugal, while both differ distinctly from Chinese food in China.

In the same way that dishes are modified to suit local tastes, so too are translations (whether on the subject of food or on other matters). Professional translation and localization services don’t simply convert texts as part of a word-for-word exchange. Instead, good translators adapt the copy to take into account the culture of the country for which the translated material is intended.

Thus, in just the same way that foods are tweaked and adjusted to suit foreign palates or available ingredients, so too are translated documents. In both situations, there is a fine line between respecting the original content and presenting it in a way that will most suit the new audience.

Professional translation without localization is one way to keep the original content most ‘pure.’ However, a lack of adaptation for the target country can lead to some embarrassing mistakes. One of the most famous examples is that of the American Dairy Association. Its ‘Got milk?’ campaign had done wonders for promoting milk consumption in the US, so the company decided to launch the same campaign in Mexico. Unfortunately, the translated phrase didn’t quite mean the same thing to Mexicans – the American Dairy Association found itself in the rather embarrassing position of having launched a campaign that asked, ‘Are you lactating?’

Drinks company Schweppes also blundered when it came to translated their products to overseas audiences. Their tonic water line was introduced to Italy in a way that translated the product name to ‘Schweppes Toilet Water.’ Needless to say, sales figures were not as high as anticipated.

However, not all food translation mistakes end badly. Having conquered the US coffee market, along with various European countries, Starbucks launched its range of lattes in Germany. Throughout its cafés, Starbucks has used the word ‘latte’ for some of its milky coffees (the word being derived from the Italian term for milk), so it did the same in Germany. Sadly, nobody had told Starbucks that ‘latte’ is a slang word for a male erection in German, creating plentiful hilarity and a fair amount of press coverage when the brand launched. German coffee drinkers, however, were happy to join in the joke and the name stuck, with lattes selling well up and down the country!


Louise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.