Two weeks ago, I posted about #ThatTranslatorCanCook, a year-long challenge marrying food and translation. The idea was dreamt up by my colleague Hannah Lawrence. You can see her blog post about the challenge here: #ThatTranslatorCanCook: how I set myself a crazy recipe translation and cooking challenge.
In my last post, I mentioned a recipe I had in mind to beat the August heat in Portland. Like many summer dishes in Spain (think gazpacho and salmorejo), this one, called pipirrana, features saucy, ripe tomatoes and a generous amount of olive oil. These two quintessential Spanish ingredients are present in this dish no matter the regional variation or the cook’s personal touch. The recipe I chose adds crisp green peppers, chopped hardboiled egg whites, and tuna in an olive oil sauce that’s richly creamy thanks to the addition of egg yolk.
The dish: Pipirrana andaluza
This recipe for pipirrana andaluza (“Andalusian pipirrana”) is from Alfonso López of Recetas de rechupete, one of my favorite online sources for Spanish recipes. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of pipirrana (neither had my Spanish husband), but the dish itself is one that will be familiar to anyone versed in true Spanish cuisine: that is, the fare found in bars, restaurants, and on family dining tables in Spain.
That brings me to how to translate the name of this frankly funny-sounding dish in English. The Spanish name, pronounced “PEE-pee RAH-nah,” is apparently a nonsense word with unknown origin. Indeed, as far as I or anyone else (link in Spanish) can tell, “pipirrana” has no meaning beyond being the name of this salad. The only sense that one might make of it is that rana means “frog.” But there are no frogs to be had in the recipe, let alone frog excretions (if you follow).
Strategies for translating obscure dish names
A nonsensical name for a dish presents a dilemma, especially when the dish appears in a recipe or on a menu in another language: the name is precisely what tells cooks or hungry patrons what to expect. Dish names can also be one of the most challenging parts of adapting food to a new culture and language.
In this case, the challenge is that we have a word that already means nothing in Spanish (unless you happen to be familiar with the dish, which not even all Spaniards are), and now we want it to make sense to English speakers. So how to translate something “untranslatable”? Here’s one thing that doesn’t work: a literal translation.
Why literal translation fails in food
Literal translations may be tempting because they’re generally easier to produce, but they almost invariably fall short. Not only do they fail to illuminate what’s actually in a dish, they can also be disappointingly misleading—and at worst, embarrassing.
For these reasons, it’s best to forgo a literal translation and opt instead for a creative alternative. This means crafting a name from scratch (and avoiding Google Translate, which can sometimes provide a usable gist, but is notoriously bad at translating food; for proof, see the links in the previous paragraph). In many cases, an explanation in the new language is best, especially in the case of a dish with an unfamiliar name, as is the case with pipirrana.
Give the dish a descriptive name in the new language
First and foremost, guests want to know what they’re ordering. If there’s a good reason to keep the name in Spanish (and sometimes there is, such as when a chef wants to immerse guests in a cultural and linguistic experience, or the name is familiar, as with paella), it’s still helpful to include an explanation of the dish and its ingredients. Otherwise, those who are unfamiliar with the Spanish name are likely to dismiss the dish entirely. (Have you ever glossed over a menu item simply because you didn’t know what it meant or how to pronounce it?)
A successful descriptive dish name often lists key ingredients. This provides the guest with vital information: not only whether the food is to their taste, but also whether it includes any ingredients they’d rather avoid (think allergies).
Pepper the name with adjectives
In addition to including the names of the ingredients themselves, adjectives do wonders to give the dish appeal in the new language. They not only tell the diner what to expect, they also rouse appetites and describe the feeling the dish intends to evoke, beyond the ingredients themselves.
Here are a few examples of how to craft a descriptive dish name, using a few translation options I came up with for pipirrana andaluza:
Chilled summer salad
Ripe tomato and green pepper, hardboiled egg, tuna, olive oil
Andalusian tomato salad with tuna
Juicy tomatoes, green peppers, hardboiled egg, olive oil
Pipirrana tomato salad
Traditional Andalusian tomato salad of ripe tomatoes, green peppers, hardboiled egg, and Galician albacore in olive oil
When and how to mention product or dish origin
You may have noticed that I mentioned Andalusia and Galicia in two of the English translations above. Today, more and more cooks and restaurant guests are interested in product origin.
I happened to use white tuna from Galicia to make this dish (aka albacore or longfin tuna; species Thunnus alalunga). This same fish is known as bonito del norte in Spain (“northern white tuna”).
While any Spaniard will know that bonito del norte is particularly coveted (even if they know this for no other reason than that it has a higher price tag at the store), English speakers are unlikely to recognize the significance of “northern tuna.” An effective alternative to mentioning the origin itself is to simply spell out why the origin holds significance.
With that in mind, here’s just one example of an effective translation for bonito del norte: “premium albacore” or “superior-quality albacore.” A restaurant whose guests are likely to be intrigued by product origin could consider adding, “premium albacore from the Cantabrian Sea” or “premium albacore from the northern coast of Spain.”
When and how to mention other notable ingredient features (sustainability, sourcing, classification)
Taking it a step further, if you know your guests are interested in sustainability or traditional methods, you could benefit by including information about sourcing. Here’s just one example of how this might look:
Chilled summer tomato salad
Ripe heirloom tomato, green pepper, hardboiled egg, line-caught Cantabrian albacore, olive oil
Of course, this information must be accurate. (It just so happened that the albacore I used for this dish, from Conservas de Cambados in Galicia, is line-caught.)
Furthermore, if the product boasts denominación de origen (designation of origin, or D.O.) or similar classification certifying its quality and geographical origin, mentioning this is another way of informing the consumer of the product’s renowned value, even when they’re unfamiliar with the origin itself or its significance.
Putting it all together
In sum, the most important detail when presenting an unfamiliar dish is to make sure the cook or guest knows what to expect in terms of basic ingredients and format (use a descriptive name). Second, the name should transmit sensation and emotion (use adjectives). Last, when origin, sourcing methods, and quality are relevant, don’t be afraid to include them.
Have you ever shied away from ordering a dish because you didn’t know how to pronounce it or simply didn’t know what it was?
If you own a restaurant or write recipes, how do you handle the names of foreign dishes?
Next up: A second simple dish from Andalusia featuring another vegetable at its peak this time of year. Hint: This ingredient goes by a different name in English depending on the country. Any guesses?