The challenge of communication is universal. Even when we speak the same language it’s so hard to fully understand another person – maybe it’s not even possible. Compared to this – but only compared to this - translation is simple and neat: you take words from one language and change them into another, keeping the meaning intact. But words don’t always make things easy. Some just don’t have an equivalent in another language, or sometimes the cultural or historical context gets in the way. I’m not one for Sudoku and such – my brain exercise of choice is translating French texts into English.
Over the years, I’ve done many different kinds of translations, from film scripts, to poems, to a 20-page cosmetics guide. About a year ago I did an insistent neighbor a cautious favor and tried to translate the legal information for his website into English (after explaining to him repeatedly that I am not nor have I ever been anything close to a lawyer and thus don’t speak legal English). I thought that would be the hardest translation job I’d ever take on. But my latest mission makes me wonder.
As some of you know, last weekend I quite unexpectedly found myself embarking on a major project. For months I've been looking for a really unique gift for my foodie father and talented baker stepmom. After a delicious dinner at French celebrity chef Cyril Lignac’s restaurant Le Chardenoux, I decided I'd like to give them the English version of Lignac's collection of recipes, La cuisine de mon bistrot. Unfortunately, there is no English version of the book. Not wanting to give up on a good idea, I've decided to (try to) translate it.
The book is about 100 pages long, but many of those pages are lovely photographs by Thomas Dhellemmes. I figure that if I translate at least 1-2 recipes a day, I’ll be ready to give it to my dad and stepmom when I see them in mid-April.
It was tough even from the get-go: the very first recipe called for an ingredient known as “crème liquide”. Not being a big cream fan myself (I’ll never be a French cook!), I wasn’t exactly sure how this should be translated or explained in English. My immediate thought – after panicking – was to turn to OS’s huge community of knowledgeable foodies for help. So many of you kindly offered advice, wisdom, and informed guesswork. kateasley even went so far as to contact a French chef friend of hers. I can’t thank you guys enough.
As you can probably guess from that little issue, I’m not much of a cook. The few recipes I know and do well haven’t given me much call to venture into the far reaches of the foodie universe. When you’re trying to translate a cookbook written by a Michelin-starred chef, that isn’t a good thing. Still, despite my foreboding, I’m happy to say that the experience has been all right so far. Mostly. And I’ve learned a lot, too.
For example, thanks to Monsieur Lignac's book, I’ve discovered what it really takes to make your own seasoned foie gras, or that there’s a term in both French and English to describe scraping stuff off the bottom of a frying pan (déglacer/deglaze, if you’re interested). Or did you know that a lot of sea salt is produced in different coastal regions of France, and that there isn’t just “sea salt”, but rather different kinds depending on where it’s cultivated, how it’s harvested, etc.?
…As the French would say, when it comes to this project, I’m “en pleine dedans” (totally into it).
Another advantage of translation is that it forces you to get better acquainted with all the languages involved. Sometimes this knowledge is spurred on by some odd surprises. Here are the weirdest ones I've encountered over the past few days:
- Pass the sauce to the Chinese man. (Passez le sauce au chinois.) -- I looked up from this sentence, stumped. How would Cyril Lignac know if there was a Chinese man in my kitchen – and since there wasn’t, could I still do the recipe? Research revealed the word “chinois” can also mean “strainer”. I’d always used and heard “passsoire”, but there you go – a strange synonym. What a strainer has to do with China or the Chinese has been haunting me ever since. I asked my boyfriend and he says he has no idea. I also asked him if any other nationalities had cooking tools named after them. He said he didn’t think so. I’ve spent hours this week pondering the Chinese strainer connection. At this point, I think it may have to do with those balls you use for tea leaves. But I’m not sure. (UPDATE - Thanks to a lead from Gabby Abby, this question's been answered! See the end of the post for details!)
- Parisian apple spoon (cuillière à pomme parisienne). Paris is a gorgeous city. Her parks are full of lovely flora and other natural phenomena – even exotic specimens in places like the Jardin des Plantes. While champignons de Paris (apparently also called “Paris mushrooms” in English, I’ve learned) no longer come from the City of Lights, there is (reportedly excellent) honey and (reportedly awful) wine produced here. But I’m pretty darn sure there’s no such thing as a Parisian apple. Those angry apple trees from The Wizard of Oz would fit right in with a lot of the city’s grouchier inhabitants, though. Frustrating dictionary and internet visits finally revealed that a “cuillière à pomme parisienne” is simply what we much more logically call a “melon baller” in English. I would complain that the French term is annoyingly misleading – but I imagine there’s probably a really cool history that goes with the term, something that involves courtesans and parties with witty 17th century intellectuals and such, so I’m going to let it slide, at least until I have the time to look this up in more detail.
- plunging mixer (mixeur plongeant) – There I was, nearly at the end of my translation of the foie gras ravioli recipe, when I came to this little phrase: “mixeur plongeant” – literally, “plunging mixer”. I imagined a blender falling from the overstuffed shelves of our closet: that’s a “mixeur plongeant” in my world. However, a Google search revealed it to be something else – something I couldn’t name.
I saw the photo of the thing and knew what it was and what it’s used for, but not how to say it in English. My boyfriend was astonished. But this isn’t the first time I’ve had that experience. I’ve spent most of my adult life in France, so lots of words involving everyday life matters such as cell phones, cooking, and house repairs, are things I can say more easily in my second language. It’s frustrating and sometimes even embarrassing.
Some of the other terms like this that I’ve encountered in Lignac’s book include: velouté (also called “velouté” in English, it turns out - a sort of creamy soup of an ingredient of your choosing); gousse d’ail (garlic cloves - I had no idea what to call the segments of garlic in English); ciboulette (chives); cèpes (ceps or Porcino mushrooms); tomates grappe (vine tomatoes). Anyway, to get back to the “mixeur plongeant” – the people of Yahoo! Answers kindly provided me with a good translation: an immersion or stick mixer.
- Indecent Eggs – On the flip side, I do know the definitions of some more obscure everyday French words. For example, when I got to the recipe called “Oeufs Cocotte” (Eggs _________), I understood “cocotte” as a cooking vessel. Lucky for me – because every source I consulted to find out the precise translation of the word insisted on the fact that it’s also a slang term for “prostitute”. "Prostitute eggs"? Why not – after all, there’s a recipe in this book that is legitimately called “Souris d’Agneau”, which, unless further research tells me otherwise, means “a mouse-sized portion of lamb” (confirmed by my unfazed boyfriend). Unfortunately, the cooking term “cocotte” in English translates to… “Dutch oven”. Now, regardless of how mature my father and stepmother are, I can’t imagine that “Dutch Oven Eggs” sounds particularly appetizing. And if they can get past the name, imagine them having to say it to friends they invite over to try this genuinely delicious-seeming starter. By another stroke of luck, I found out that an alternate term for “Dutch Oven” (the cooking kind) is “Casserole Dish”. Thanks, speakers of British English!
Fun fact: Be careful if you want to tell someone in French that it smells like they’re making a casserole: “Ça sent la cocotte” is a popular expression that means it smells like someone used too much perfume. So, in this case, “cocotte” is probably a lady of the night…unless you like perfumes that smell like food. But then again, why not? My scent of choice is cotton-candy flavored body spray.
Last night, I finished translating the “Appetizers” portion of the book. To celebrate, I had a scrabbled-together dinner of scrambled eggs, frozen string beans, and potatoes. Without truffle sauce! I think Cyril Lignac would cry if he knew.
Gabby Abby has single-handedly solved the "chinois" mystery! Here's what she wrote about it in the comments section: "Oh! and I expect you've already discovered the uses and derivatives for your Chinese hat (chinois)."
Turns out there's a conical strainer called a "China cap strainer" in English, too! You can see an example of one here. Thanks, Abby! If I had the means, I'd definitely buy you one!
Further research shows that, as the linked picture reveals, a "China cap strainer" has screen-window-like material in its cone, not simply metal with holes. As this site, Chef depot, very nicely explains: "This is a "Chinoise" (or chinois) also called a bouillon strainer. It is used to strain sauces, stocks and pureed soups. It is essential for French style cooking. High quality with heavy duty stainless steel mesh construction for years of use. We have used one of these almost every day for over 20 years! It is ultra-fine and will remove tiny seeds and fiber from soups and sauces. We like it for straining stocks, raspberry sauce, vanilla sauce, cream of asparagus soup and other fine sauces. Designed in France!"