Found in Translation

Posted by in March's Magazine

Here’s a nice simple question for you: who is your favourite author? And here’s an equally simple question to follow it: who is your favourite translator?

The two questions might both seem simple but one is a damn sight easier to answer than the other. For what it’s worth, my own answer to the second question would be “whoever translated the Asterix books into English.” But without recourse to the internet I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who that was, take a bow apiece Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, and an extra big bow for whichever of you had the genius idea to name the druid ‘Getafix’.


Such is the life of the translator, and thus has it ever been. Translators spend years, if not decades, developing their understanding of a foreign language: not merely its meanings, but its rhythms, cadences, cultural background, idioms and puns. They painstakingly work their way through hundreds of pages, honing every phrase to find the appropriate balance between literal accuracy and readability – and their reward? Well, if they’re lucky they might get to see their names, in small print, mind you, somewhere on the inside front cover. And of the thousands of people who end up reading their work, only the tiniest handful – those who also happen to know the book intimately in its original language – will ever have any real appreciation of the job they’ve done. Many will never even realise that the book was written in a different language in the first place. Indeed, to many translators that serves as the ultimate compliment.

Translating a cookbook brings yet another element of complexity to the mix. In 2005 Phaidon Press published the first English language translation of Il cucchiaio d’argento (The Silver Spoon), Italy’s biggest selling cookbook of the previous 50 years. Comprising some 2000 recipes across more than 1200 pages, its sheer heft would have been enough to put most people off the task, but in practice that was among the least of the challenges. What of all those ingredients abundant in Italy that yet remain virtually unobtainable outside it?

And what too of the insistence of British consumers – no doubt destined to continue in symbolic perpetuity after Brexit – that imperial measurements be listed alongside the metric ones? What to do with the dishes, such as brain sauce or frog soup, that would provoke something between puzzlement and revulsion among the majority of English speaking readers? The editors’ answer to that question was a pleasing one – sod it, let’s just leave them all in.

Above all how do you bridge the gap between two contrasting food and recipe cultures?

As the (anonymous) translators note in the introduction, “there is a fundamental difference between the Italian approach to cooking and that of the English-speaking countries. English language cookbooks tend to contain far more detailed explanations than their Italian counterparts.” They’re not wrong. When we pick up a recipe our assumption is that we’ll be told how to do just about everything. Add this much of this and that much of that; cook at exactly this temperature for exactly that long. At a push we might be invited to add salt and pepper to taste but that’s about as far as we expect our responsibilities to stretch.

Italians, by contrast, expect no such cosseting and most would be quite affronted to be offered it, a recurring shorthand in Il cucchiaio d’argento is ‘q.b.’ or ‘quanto basta’, which translates as ‘as much as is necessary’ or, more simply, ‘enough’. For instance, prepare your frogs (or whatever) roughly as directed then add enough olive oil, enough Parmesan, and so on. Whether ‘enough’ means a teaspoonful or a bucketful is entirely up to you. Only when strict adherence to methods and timings is essential to the success of a dish – getting a soufflé to rise, for example – do the instructions become truly prescriptive. The rest of the time, the recipes serve as guides rather than gospel. But the editors correctly surmised that for most english speaking readers this simply wouldn’t do, so they added precise quantities and timings to provide the required reassurance.

How wise of them – and at the same time, how ludicrous that we should be so fixated with weights and measures that we’re deemed unable to cope with even their occasional absence. Right now, somebody is cooking a meal from The Silver Spoon, following every timing to the second and measurement to the millilitre – or perhaps the fluid ounce – neither knowing nor caring that these numbers have nothing to do with the original recipe but have instead been dreamt up by an English translator to satisfy our obsession with spurious specifics.

However, wouldn’t it be wonderfully liberating to allow ourselves to be just a little more Italian about the way we cook? We all have taste buds so why on earth should we need a recipe to tell us precisely how much lemon juice to put into a salad dressing? By all means allow recipes to guide us through technical procedures or inspire us with flavour combinations but beyond that, enough is enough. Or, should I say, quanto basta?

Twitter: @norecipeman

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