Translating Food

The New York Times has an interesting article up about the surprising number of American chefs who’ve gotten quite famous for cooking up foreign foods. You would think that people would be more likely to flock to restaurants run by people who are from the country where the cuisine in question originated, but apparently that isn’t the case. Examples noted in the article include Andy Ricker, a chef from Portland, Oregon who made his name cooking Thai food; Alex Stupak and Rick Bayless, known for their Mexican dishes; and Ed Schoenfeld, New York’s “Chinese” chef of the moment.

What gives? According to the article, part of the reason it’s easy for all-American chefs to make a name for themselves cooking other cultures’ food has to do with lack of connections and/or simple prejudice, which is unfortunate. But that’s far from the whole story. As it turns out, translating food from one culture to another is not that different from translating words from one language to another.

In fact, Krishnendu Ray, who teaches food studies at New York University, told the New York Times:

“Presenting a cuisine from afar is “fundamentally an act of translation. So you have to be attuned to two cultures. It’s a kind of bilingualism.”

In this sense, immigrant chefs often have the deck stacked against them, because while they may be bilingual in terms of language, they aren’t “bilingual” when it comes to flavors. For example, the article describes the difficulty that Thai-born chef Saipin Chutima faced when her family opened their own restaurant:

“Customers knew pad Thai, she said, but when the offerings veered too far from that, “they’d say, ‘This isn’t Thai!’ ”

The family managed to make the restaurant work by providing a high level of personal service, talking to each diner to learn about their likes and dislikes and to make recommendations.

Americans, on the other hand, have a more instinctive sense of the American palate. Mr. Ricker explained:

“Shrimp paste is delicious, but superpungent, hectic. I just know it will be sent back. But I can do very close versions of specific dishes that don’t require a sense of adventure to try.”

Interpreting Not Translation, US Supreme Court Rules

Is there a difference between interpreting from another language and translating? According to the US Supreme Court, the answer is a resounding “yes,” at least when it comes to lawsuits.

The Court’s ruling in the Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan case limits “translation” to the written word and “interpreting” to the spoken word. The case began with a Japanese baseball player, Kouichi Taniguchi, falling through a wooden deck at resort in the Marianas owned by Kan Pacific Saipan. He injured his leg, sued the resort owners for negligence, and lost. According to the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, under American law the winner in a lawsuit is allowed to force the loser to pay the costs of “interpretation.”

The definition of interpretation came under scrutiny as Kan Pacific Saipan tried to force Mr. Taniguchi to pay them back over $5,000 for the cost of having some court documents translated into Japanese. Mr. Taniguchi’s legal team argued that since the translation was written instead of oral, it was not covered under the Court Interpreters Act.

As the New York Times reports, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed, with Judge Richard Posner writing, “Robert Fagles made famous translations into English of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but no one would refer to him as an English-language ‘interpreter’ of these works.”

The Supreme Court also agreed, ruling that losing parties are only required to pay for oral interpreters and not for document translation, with Judge Samuel Alito joking that  since the opinion was only issued in English, “Anybody who wants to read it in another language will have to pay to have it translated, not interpreted.”

Frankly, it seems silly to include oral interpreting and exclude written translation. The legal system is complex, and both interpreting and translation are often necessary to make it accessible to all parties. This Supreme Court ruling may hew to the letter of the law, but it doesn’t seem in keeping with its spirit.

As a New York Times editorial noted:

“Federal judges have long included document translators in that definition, Justice Ginsburg said, to put “written words within the grasp of parties, jurors, and judges.” That’s still the more convincing interpretation.”

Photo Credit: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by laura padgett

Kouichi Taniguchi s

Ancient Roman Curses, Translated

What do you do when you come home from a bad day at work, furious at someone? Do you pour yourself a drink? Blow off steam playing video games? If you lived in a time when people commonly believed in black magic, you might have used a different coping mechanism: casting a curse at the offender, usually by contracting with a witch or sorcerer.

In ancient Greece and Rome, if you meant business, you’d have your curse written down on a stone tablet called a curse tablet or defixio. These tablets were purported to bind deities like Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, to the sorceror’s will in order to make them punish the person named in the curse. Defixiones were sometimes mass-produced by sorcerers, with the curses pre-written and space left for information like the victim’s name and his or her alleged crimes.

Interestingly, the tablets often included “Voces mysticae,” untranslatable words that were thought to have magical powers, like the modern day “Abra Cadabra” (or Avada Kedavra, as the case may be.)  In ancient Rome, these words have been of Etruscan origin, or they may have been made up out of whole cloth. Nobody is quite sure.

LiveScience reports that two defixiones from the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna have recently been translated. The translations, with targets as high and mighty as a senator and as low as an animal doctor,  seem to illustrate how common  these cursing tablets were in Roman society.

It’s not hard to imagine reasons why a politician would be targeted, but what did the hapless veterinarian do? Celia Sánchez Natalías, the doctoral student who translated the tablets, speculated that perhaps  he just wasn’t good at his job: “Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello’s medicine.”

Either way, ancient curses were quite vicious. Here’s just a sampling of the one directed at Porcello:

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …”

Senator Fistus doesn’t get off any more lightly:

“Crush, kill Fistus the senator. May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

Are you sensing a pattern here?

US Government Still Short on Translators and Interpreters

English has become one of the most widespread languages worldwide, and that sometimes leads people in English-speaking countries to discount the value of foreign language education. For example, in the United States, census data shows that in 2000, only 9.3 percent of Americans could hold a conversation in another language, and the BBC notes that “the weakness of language learning in England has been a recurrent concern.”  That’s unfortunate, because today the world is more interconnected than ever, and every country needs citizens with foreign language skills.

That need became even more pressing in the United States after 9/11, and the US government’s military and security services are still wrestling with a lack of qualified translators and interpreters. In fact, officials recently testified before the US Congress regarding  the issue, saying that their difficulty in finding qualified applicants for positions that require advanced foreign language skills could negatively impact US national security.

As reported in a press release, Laura Junor, deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness, told Congress:

“Our current challenge lies in filling language-required positions with personnel that possess the requisite language skills.  We’ve been reducing this deficiency, but we need help. We need our nation’s schools to develop students with these skills from which we can recruit to meet our needs.”

The Washington Post reports that in 2011, just 28 percent of the US Defense Department’s foreign language positions were actually filled by people at the necessary fluency level. About 20 percent were completely vacant, and the rest were filled by people at lower skill levels than the jobs require.

Of course, it’s much easier for young children to become fluent in another language than it is for an adult to start from scratch. And once you’ve learned one language, it’s much easier to pick up a third. Junor told Congress that to address the staffing issues in America’s defense and intelligence agencies,  the country’s schools need to begin emphasizing foreign language learning starting in the youngest grades:

“Studies show that exposure to foreign language and early language learning greatly facilitates language acquisition. Therefore, bringing in individuals with foreign language skills makes it easier to train people to higher levels of proficiency.”

international snack foods

Snack Foods, Transcreated

Sometimes, merely translating words is not enough – getting your message across to a new market means starting from scratch, rewriting, and redesigning. This process is called transcreation.

In a similar vein, sometimes a product itself has to be redesigned to suit a local culture. One interesting example of this phenomenon occurs  in the snack foods industry. As it turns out, different cultures have very different ideas about what constitutes acceptable snack fare, so foods that make it big in one country might need to be completely re-imagined to do well in another.

For example, as James Andrade, Kraft Foods’ vice president of research and development in the Asia Pacific region, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle,

“People in this part of the world have strong feelings about what a mango tastes like.  You can have many variations on vanilla, but people are quite discriminating with mango.”

To make Kraft’s Oreo cookies a success in China, Andrade had to find a mango flavor that hit all the right notes. They also had to cut the sugar a bit, as the original Oreos were too sweet for Chinese palates. According to Andrade, it “isn’t a matter of just removing one ingredient. It’s about making sure you balance the flavors. You almost have to reconstruct the product.”

Curious about how people snack in different parts of the world? Here is a list, by no means exhaustive, of some of the more unusual localized versions of popular snack foods:

Oreos: In addition to mango orange cream, Chinese Oreos come in green tea ice cream and raspberry/blueberry flavors. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: In Argentina, you’ll find them flavored with banana and dulce de leche, or with chocolate cream. In Indonesia, it’s chocolate and peanut. Strawberry Oreos are sold in both Malaysia and Indonesia.  Meanwhile, the Japanese enjoy green tea and lemon ice-flavored versions.

Tang: The original citrus-flavored drink powder comes in a rainbow of regional variations: In Mexico, hibiscus and tamarind are the standouts, while Argentina enjoys pear flavor. Soursop flavor is available throughout central and south America, as is a barley cinnamon flavor, a horchata flavor and pineapple.

Cheetos: Chocolate and Strawberry-flavored Cheetos? Yes, they exist – in Japan, and apparently in Russia, where the crispy corn snacks are flavored with chocolate and filled with cream. But this raises a philosophical question: is a Cheeto a Cheeto without the “cheese”?

Potato Crisps: The original Lay’s Potato Crisps bored Russians to tears, forcing Lays to introduce new flavors like Crab, Red Caviar, Forest Mushroom, Grilled Meat and Pickled Cucumber. In Singapore, Pringle’s potato crisps come in a range of flavors including Soft Shell Crab, Seaweed and Grilled Shrimp.

What’s the most unusual international snack you’ve come across? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit:  Attribution Some rights reserved by flavouz

New French Prime Minister’s Name Lost in Translation

Poor Jean-Marc Ayrault. The new French Prime Minister had hardly a moment to enjoy his new position when it was revealed that his last name, if pronounced properly, sounds like “penis” in Arabic. More specifically, it sounds like a slang term used to refer to the organ in the third person singular possessive form (i.e. “his penis.”)

Of course, the press was all over the awkward translation — the potential headlines and  jokes were just too good to ignore. For example, observed that under the circumstances, Ayrault ” would be considered linguistically as well as parliamentarily-speaking to be the ‘dick-head’ of cabinet.” Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s headline pulled no punches: “Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves Middle East red-faced… as his name sounds like the Arabic for penis.”  Bloomberg chose to be more delicate: “France’s Ayrault Creates Anatomical Challenge For Arab Press.”

The mainstream Arabic press, of course, has less of an opportunity to snark, as they’d prefer to offend neither their more conservative readers nor the French Prime Minister himself.  They coped as best they could, taking liberties with both spelling and pronunciation, or just referring to him by his first name.

Obviously, a more permanent solution was needed, and fortunately the French foreign ministry stepped forward to issue some guidelines. Per the Daily Mail,

‘The ministry has sent out a press release to the Arabic media, telling them how the name should be said in French. But it also says that Mr Ayrault finds it acceptable that they pronounce all the letters of his name, including the “l” and the “t” at the end, so that it sounds like “Eye-rolte.”

There are only so many sounds that can be used to form words, making occasional occurrences like this inevitable. Fun fact: as the Daily Mail observes, the French themselves had to alter the pronunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last name, as it sounds like “prostitute” in French. Or, remember the Australian woman who got her nickname inscribed onto her car’s vanity plates only to find that it had an unexpected meaning in Tagalog?

For more name translation humour, head on over to the Atlantic for a very funny round-up of names that just don’t travel well.


Italian University To Go English-Only

The Politecnico di Milano, an Italian university that’s known throughout the world for its architectural and engineering programs, just made a surprising announcement: starting in 2014, most degree programs will be offered in English only. No Italian.

Why would an Italian school move to an English-only policy? In an interview with the BBC, the school’s rector, Giovanni Azzone, explained that he believed the school had no choice if it wanted to stay competitive worldwide:

“We strongly believe our classes should be international classes – and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language… It’s very important for our students not only to have very good technical skills, but also to work in an international environment.”

The school wants to be able to attract students from the US and the UK, as well as from India and Asian countries where English is a common second language. He continued, “We are very proud of our city and culture, but we acknowledge that the Italian language is an entry barrier for overseas students.”

Learning English as a second language can open up doors, and some of the Italian students interviewed by the BBC approved of the idea because it would give them a chance to improve their English proficiency via immersion, without having to leave the country. Other teachers and students were concerned that the quality of instruction would suffer once everyone had to switch to a foreign language.

Professor Emilio Matricciani, who has started a petition against the decision, explained:

“Speaking Italian to our countrymen is like watching a movie in colour, high definition, very clear pictures. On the contrary, speaking English to them, even with our best effort, is, on the average, like watching a movie in black and white, with very poor definition, with blurred pictures.”

What do you think? Is it right for a public university to adopt another country’s language? If all the degrees are in English, will students who travel there to study be missing out on the chance to experience the local culture?

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by bibendum84

Browser Translations

Language Immersion in your Browser?

Chrome users, you no longer have an excuse for browsing the web mindlessly. Thanks to Google, you could be learning how to say “I can haz cheezburger” in one of 64 languages!

Google calls its new Chrome extension “just a little experiment that may delight (or infuriate) the neurolinguists in the house,” and while it most certainly won’t replace actual language classes or language learning software, it’s a fun way to test your skills and perhaps pick up some new vocabulary.

Here’s how it works: once you install the extension, you can select a language and your fluency level. Then, as long as the extension is on, a certain percentage of the text on each page you visit will appear in that language. If you don’t know a word or phrase, you can generally puzzle out the meaning  using context clues. For pronunciation help, just roll your cursor across the text, and a robotic female voice will pronounce it for you.  If you’re really stuck on the meaning or you just want to double-check yourself,  a quick click of the mouse is all it takes to translate it back to English.

So, how well does it work? Obviously, a browser extension in and of itself is not going to get you anywhere near fluency. Google’s translations are imperfect, so take them with a grain of salt.  Lifehacker notes that “the translations might use the wrong gender or the more literal/formal versions of words and phrases.”

Additionally, you probably won’t want to have it on all time — as Time’s Techland blog noted,

“It can be a little disorienting to be reading in English and all of a sudden be interrupted by a Spanish phrase, which sometimes doesn’t entirely make sense in the context of the sentence.”

Still, it’s a fun way for language geeks to browse the web, and perhaps to hone your foreign language skills.

Google Translate

Why Machine Translation is Not Good Enough

Machine translation that’s good enough to substitute for human interpreters is like the great white whale, sought by science fiction writers, businesses and militaries alike. However, despite all the hype about the latest iPhone translation app and the ubiquity of Google Translate, nobody has yet managed to produce an algorithm that does the job as well as a bilingual human.

A recent article in Slate on the efforts of the US military to develop a machine translation device to substitute for human interpreters in Afghanistan is a case in point. The article describes the results of a 5 year research effort funded by DARPA. The snippet below shows just how well the device performed in place of a Pashto interpreter:

Rachel asked: “Would you introduce me to him?” Aziz failed to understand the machine’s translation (though he does speak English), so she asked again: “Could you introduce me to the village elder?” This time, there was success, after a fashion. Aziz, via the device, replied: “Yes, I can introduce myself to you.”

Unfortunately, Aziz was not the village elder in question. C3PO, where are you when we need you?  DARPA’s speech-to-speech translation system, called TransTac, achieved an 80% accuracy rate by the end of the research project. Obviously, these are not the droids we were looking for.

The problem, as Slate points out, is that computers are great at storing knowledge and making calculations, but they lack the key ingredient of a successful interpreter: understanding. Attempts to add this essential human ingredient by comparing machine translations to human-created translations and by having real people rate translations for quality also tend to fall short. Plus, it’s slow and expensive. As Slate writer Konstantin Kakaes put it:

The difficulty of knowing if a translation is good is not just a technical one: It’s fundamental. The only durable way to judge the faith of a translation is to decide if meaning was conveyed. If you have an algorithm that can make that judgment, you’ve solved a very hard problem indeed.

We couldn’t agree more, and that’s why it’s so important to use trained human translators and interpreters for important communications.

We recently published a further article regarding the pitfalls of MT, you can view it here:


Forgotten Language Rediscovered

In the ruins of an ancient palace in the Middle East,  an archaeologist from Cambridge recently discovered an amazing artifact. No, it wasn’t the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Sorry, Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s the remains of a forgotten language, long extinct, that scholars were unaware of until now.

The language, found inscribed on clay tablets in an Assyrian stronghold that dates back 2,800 years, was likely spoken by nomads living in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

So far, knowledge of the mystery language is limited to the names of 45 women. According to the Independent, archaeologist Dr. John MacGinnis discovered them while translating  a clay tablet used as an administrative record book by the palace bureaucrats.  The names were clearly not Assyrian, as the Assyrian tradition at the time was to create names by combining existing words together.

From the Independent, here are some of the names in question: Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.

Look for a celebrity to choose one of these for their baby girl sometime within the next year — after all, what could be more unique than a name in a forgotten language?

But who were these women? And who were their people? At the this time, all we know is that they probably weren’t there of their own free will. As the Independent notes,

“The 60 women (including the 45 with evidence of the previously unattested language) were almost certainly being deployed by the palace authorities for some economic purpose (potentially a female-associated craft activity like weaving). Indeed the text mentions that some of them were being allocated to specific local villages.”

Now, they are at the center of a linguistic mystery, and the race is on to try to get a better idea of where they were from. The 45 names will be compared to existing regional languages to see if any relationship can be found that might help place them. Their language may not ever be deciphered or named, but almost 3,000 years later, history has not forgotten them.

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