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A Strawberry by Any Other Name: Intricacies in Food Translations

1/30/2018 by Sara Leonhartsberger

Perhaps one of the most intriguing challenges facing translators today is translations for food. Food items, while a global experience, possess strong cultural and regional associations, transforming shared general objects into diverse specific terms, of which a translator must be aware. Although these difficulties become quite apparent when translating food items originating in one culture and language into another, a subtler challenge arises with differing terms for the same food item within a shared language. Translators confronted with these challenges can choose from several courses of action to provide the best translation, depending on the context of target audience or clarity.

When translating food items originating in one culture and language into another where no reference point exists for the item, a translator can resolve potential confusion through various options. For example, the American-English food items of relish, stuffing, and coleslaw do not have an immediate counterpart in Spanish. A translator tasked with conveying these items to a Spanish target audience may choose from finding the closest Spanish approximation to the word, using more descriptive words in the Spanish name of the item, or keeping the English name while explaining the item in a Spanish description. While each option answers the challenge of culturally-specific food items, one could prove better suited than the others, depending on the document being translated.

Additionally, food items that have differing terms within a shared language require keen perception and regional knowledge on the part of the translator. For example, within Spanish, fruits and vegetables have differing names depending on the country. Strawberry is known as fresa in Spain, while South American countries such as Argentina refer to the fruit as frutilla; likewise, potatoes are known as patatas in Spain, while Latin American countries refer to the vegetable as papas. Depending where the target audience of the translation resides, the translator must choose the correct word to best convey meaning.

As with many aspects of translation, food translations are often intricacies that a translator must understand, untangle, and communicate effectively. Whether a cultural difference, such as English dishes translated for a Spanish audience, or a regional difference, such as Spanish fruits and vegetables, translators navigate these linguistic challenges through various channels to present clients with accurate, communicative translations.  Without these channels, a whole world of vibrant food items and dishes would most likely be lost in translation.

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