Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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FEBRUARY 24, 2011 2:04PM

Pass the sauce to the Chinese man: Adventures in Translation

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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.


(Image source)

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. 


(image source

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!"


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Thanks again to all you OSers for your help and advice!
dificult art is translation for sure.
Delightful, Alysa! This is better than Julie Julia! xox
You should next hire yourself out to translate menus. Didn't notice anything too weird on French menus, but some dillies when in Italy, where your scrambled eggs in one establishment were called 'mistreated eggs'.

On second thought, good translations would take away a lot of the mystery and amusement ...
Hey there, this was a *great* post. I can *so* relate. Except I don't speak French as well as you do (I think). And my German is still under construction. My GF of 16(!) years is French and we live in the Black Forest. Bought the place last summer.

Being a "reluctant chef", I find myself on many involuntary adventures due to my lack of knowledge about some of the ingredients I want to play with. I always say; You can't live in another country and be an egoist...every day is a lesson in humillity!

Been reading all your posts. I like the way you are progressing. When I am passing through Paris I'll let you know. OS Paris meet-up! Wooot!
Geez, my comment vanished.

I wanted to congratulate you on your newly acquired culinary knowledge b/c for sure, it's going to come in handy one of these days. The delights of deglazing, a salt tasting (kind of like wine, but for salt), and the wonders of just the perfect Dutch oven to cook your first boeuf bourguignon in...oh, you know you will. In the meantime, I'll just say, you can live a lifetime without an immersion mixer, but for a certain type of cook there's an ease of use that can't be beat. (I don't have one, I'm not the type).
Now explain the origins of bain-marie. Or maybe not. It can't be good.
I forgot to say a Dutch oven is commonly a fireproof covered casserole, a deep pot or dish with a lid, suitable for placing in the oven for things like cassoulet, etc.

Oh! and I expect you've already discovered the uses and derivatives for your Chinese hat (chinois). I knew I'd be able to call myself a chef the day I was cooking at a level where I'd need a chinois. So far, I don't have one...or an immersion mixer.
I loved this, it reminded me of the Julia & Julie movie, the part where Julia Childs is trying to find a French Cookbook in English? Great movie,

Cotton candy perfume, my other half went to both Walmarts in our town and bought all theirs out before they quit stocking it. I love that perfume, makes people wonder where the cotton candy smell is coming from in the middle of the winter:) Have you tried the cucumber yet? Its nice, but Cotton Candy rules:)

I'm sure your Dad and Step-mom will love all the hard work and effort that you are putting into this for them:)
This is delightful. I'm not a cook and would be totally befuddled. I was mercifully given a cookbook that actually explains what most assume (like basting). The only thing that would be even worse for me would be translating a "How to Sew" book (are those even written?)
This post was fascinating. As you know, Bernadine doesn't really cook, but the whole idea of figuring out really two languages, French and COOKING made for a great article, Alysa!!! RRRRR
Yahoo Babel Fish translates it as "baller de melon." What the hell's wrong with that? L'expression n'est pas belle?
Don – It is that.

Robin – Thanks so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying my journey into French cuisine…but I don’t deserve such high praise!

Myriad – “Mistreated Eggs” – I love it! Yeah, I think part of the fun of not always having correct or standard translations is the crazy surprises you encounter. We came upon some great ones in Japan. As for your menu translating idea…hmm….If I can survive the Cyril Lignac experience, that might be an interesting idea….

kitehlips – Hi and thanks for reading, and for your kind words! I don’t know that I speak French very well, and certainly not well at all when it comes to fine dining! You’re so right about every day in a foreign country being a lesson in humility. My lessons have been even harsher than usual ever since I started this translation :- )

Abby – Weird what you wrote about the vanishing comment- I’ve had the same issues today on OS. Maybe there’s a problem with the site? Whatever the case, thanks for persisting. Especially because you have given me a new bucket list item: salt tasting! I imagine being in a room of deer, even though I now know perfectly well this could be an absolutely legitimate thing. If we ever get a chance to meet up in real life, I propose we try to organize it around a local salt tasting. I’m also intrigued by what you wrote about an immersion mixer. Not sure how to interpret it, but it makes me feel better I don’t have one!

Mumbletypeg – It’s strange, but I’ve never really thought about the phrase “bain marie”. I think it’s because when I first learned it, by looking at cooking instructions on crinkled packages, I always thought the term was “bain marine”. It’s only this week, in fact, that I realized how wrong I was…. Your challenge sent me to, where I just learned what it’s all about: apparently alchemist Albert le Grand coined the term. The “Marie” in question is apparently a famous Hellenistic alchemist, called “Marie la Juive” (“Marie the Jewish Woman”) – cool history, plus it turns out this term makes references to one of my people!

Abby – again – wait – so a strainer in English can also be called a “Chinese hat”? I am floored! Thanks for answering the question that’s been gnawing at me all week!

Dys – I feel very close to Julia Child in doing this project, though she had many, many advantages over me. As for the cotton candy spray news, I am really worried – I’m going on a trip to the US in a few months and was planning to stock up – so Wal-Mart’s stopped selling it?? Ahhh!! Going into panic mode…..
Stim - I think the problem is that "baller" doesn't exist as a French word - at least not an Academie-approved one. My unabridged dictionary only lists "baller" as a verb for "to hang" - so that would be a "melon hanger".... I'm not sure how they would literally translate "melon baller".
Rw – I don’t know if this book would be the best French cookbook to have – the recipes are unusual…more so because imperfectly translated by me…. : - ) I am jealous of your access to good Chinese food.

Mime – Whew, I’m so glad I’m not alone! I found a great site,, that has been really helpful with some of the terms I’m “supposed to” know. The site is now on my “favorites” and will probably stay there.

Bernadine – Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, even if you’re not a fan of cooking (much like myself).
Rw – I don’t know if this book would be the best French cookbook to have – the recipes are unusual…more so because imperfectly translated by me…. : - ) I am jealous of your access to good Chinese food.

Mime – Whew, I’m so glad I’m not alone! I found a great site,, that has been really helpful with some of the terms I’m “supposed to” know. The site is now on my “favorites” and will probably stay there.

Bernadine – Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, even if you’re not a fan of cooking (much like myself).
That's a hell of a unique gift idea.
I wish I was at your christmas party: perhaps you could
gift me with an american slangy version of
one of my favorite french impossible-to-read
philosophical works: "Creative Evolution", by Bergson.
"Elan Vital",,,,,maybe....translate it into German first
(I so love German perambulatory adventures in syntax)
then back to English...
"EnthusiasmSpark responsible for LifeEvolving"

Prostitiute eggs in a test-tube, strained by Chinese eugenistists?
That will give me tortured dreams.

Maybe it's all the meatballs i have eaten recently that make my
uni-lingual brain dull. Thank God I speak English. I can fuck
that damn hybrid monstrosity of a tongue
six and one half ways to next sunday.
Is that all you people over there in France do?
Eat? And think of better ways to eat?
I eat good American food: tacos, spaghetti, and pizza.
And plenty of lentils.
(ha.just kidding)
James - I HAVE been talking a lot about food lately, haven't I? I think it started back in January, when I went on a diet. I've got to stop. People in France don't just eat, after all - they smoke and look sullen and make fun of their friends who try to speak English. Speaking of which, you speak our native language amazingly - I'm glad it hasn't been diluted by a foreign tongue. I'm sorry, though - I don't do philosophy translations - with the exception of Thoreau and a very few others, I can't understand that kind of writing, even in English!
Alysa, you are a delight to read!

Prostitute Eggs! LOL!!!

I love that you smell like cotton candy (we call it Fairy Floss in Australia) and that you had a scrabbled-together dinner to celebrate a major milestone of your project!

Oh I am SO smiling!
Hi Alyssa, maybe you can help me get some of my movie ideas from My Pitch To Hollywood looked at, they are original, and if i don't seem vain, very good and original ideas. Thanks, Susan
Little Kate – Thank you for your kind words – and a HUGE thanks for teaching me the phrase “fairy floss”. I love it!!!!

Susan – I’m sorry to tell you this, but unfortunately I don’t have any ties to Hollywood. Through my love of films and writing, I’ve been able to meet some young screenwriters who’ve needed their work translated into English, in order, like you, to try to get their movies made, or who’ve needed subtitles for short independent films at obscure festivals. Good luck to you, and sorry I can’t help.
I dunno, I think it would be easier just to get a Chinaman than translate all this.
Hey!!!! I thought you were going to try each recipe, too, and post photos of the dishes for us to savor. You could be another Julie and get famous with a movie and a book deal and stuff. And throw a party for us with some of the tastiest dishes to sample. Sounds good, huh?
Harry’s – Sigh. As I sit here pondering over how to translate “Tartare de boeuf au couteau” (wish I could just have fun with it and say “beef tartare at knifepoint”), I really think you might be right….

Matt – Julie was a cook, but I’m not, alas. I wish I were. My fear and lack of ambition (and probably good culinary taste) once again block my chance at the good life! There are some recipes in the book I will be trying to make, though. I’ll keep you posted…and maybe try to mail you a portion….
My husband's mother is French, his family has spent decades making fun of her accent, their favorite word to pick on is potatoes, which she pronounces "PUH-da-does" with the accent on the first syllable, that's what makes it funny. And they love trying to make her say things with the letter R. Bless her though, her native tongue is so beautiful to listen to, I love when her Parisian relatives call, I sit and listen to her speak French in awe and wonder. Her daughter owns a French restaurant and is the head chef. She would really appreciate this post!
A wonderful post, Alysa. I love following your culinary journey and sharing your findings with us. The combination of your strength in writing and novice naivite in the field of gastronomy makes it a delightful reading.

I can see the term “Ça sent la cocotte” used for someone using too much perfume originating from the word coquette. Anyway, isn't language just beautiful?

Now that is quite a present! Knowing a little of several languages, I can image what a feat it is to translate such technically specific terms. And much more fun than the legal work, I'm sure. I'd love to learn more about the etymology of the word chinois, too. I have a feeling you will get to the root of it and report back.
Well, personally I NEVER cook without a Chinese person to help me with the sauce. Makes the tiny apartment kitchen crowded but it's worth it.

rated for a good laugh. I was en plein dedans throughout.
I loved this, Alysa. The title is very funny as is the explanation for it.~r
Delightful! I remember the painful translation exercises in my high school Latin class. The teacher used to tell the same joke repeatedly. "Latin is a dead language, it killed the Romans and now it's killing us."
This is a fabulous blog. I remember learning all of those colloquial type sayings in my French class. Well, not those in particular, but similar type stuff. Thanks for sharing!
Best Wishes,
Comment amusant! Languages are so fascinating, aren't they? That's some project you took on. I hope you make it. :D

Alysa, apologies, I was gone most of the day yesterday adn some how missed this.
I hope this makes cover.
Rated with hugs
I'm the total opposite of a foodie, yet I thoroughly enjoyed this. I'm fascinated by things that don't translate easily into another language. And if I ever make an omelet, "prostitute eggs" would be an improvement over what my family usually calls it.
Fun and interesting post! I was surprised how many things I knew, Yay! Your spark always shines through each piece Alysa, very charming.
I loved this! Good luck with the rest of the translation!
dragonfly – Thanks for reading! I love how you explain your mother-in-law’s pronunciation of “potato” – it’s dead-on!

kate – Whoa. I never made the connection…. “Puttanesca”….you just rocked my world a little….

Fusun – Thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad you’re enjoying my stumble through the culinary world. I think there is indeed a connection between “cocotte” and “coquette”, though I’d rather be called the latter! :- )

Flower Child – Haha! I’m loving the mistranslations I’m hearing about in these comments. I understand how they could happen, even as I crack up! As for my submitting this to a culinary magazine, I feel like they would beat me up if they read how little I know about their world….

Grace – You’re right – this project is hard, but is definitely a million times more fun than the legal translation! At least so far! I’ve updated the post with information that I found out about the origin of “chinois,” thanks largely to Gabby Abby. I’ve also sent you a PM about it.

Shiral – You are so much wiser than I! Cela me fait très plaisir que tu aies été pleine dedans!

Joan – I’m so glad you liked it ! Thanks!

BB – I love that Latin quote! I’m going to use it the next time my boyfriend tries to read a Latin inscription at a museum!

Blittie – Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed and that it brought back memories of French class!

Lezlie – Thanks…I hope I make it too.

Linda – No worries – I know you’ve been busy with jealousy-inducing OS meet-ups and such! Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

Cranky – I cracked up at what you wrote about your eggs. I think if your family complains next time, tell them the eggs are from a badly translated recipe you got from me.

rita – I’m glad and impressed you knew these…would you be interested in taking on a translation project….?

Mia – Thanks! I need all the luck I can get!
I don't cook Frenchified, Alysa - I leave in the pulp and the seeds, Southern style. However, anyone who wants a chinois should follow the link Alysa provided b/c it's a great product for a good price. One of these days I'll go to France and get lovingly strained, creamy, delicious sauces and soups.
Abby - right on with leaving seeds in! The French take away so much - I'm always surprised when they start skinning almost every possible fruit and vegetable in sight. Thanks so much again for giving us all this great info - and the recommendation, too!
Well, there is no doubt that I have to "favourite" you. Your writing alone guarantees that. Then, of course, there is the fact that you actually had the courage to tackle the translation of a cook-book (if such a lowly term can be applied).

I fear my doctor will himself have the heart attack with which he threatens me if he should find out though. He knows, as you've probably guessed by now, that I'll soon be asking for a copy of that translation. The mere thought of which has added two more pounds (1 kilogram) to my present rotundness.