The foodie trap

As you may have guessed, the realm of culinary delight is an area I am fond to delve into. But like in any other field, there are countless ‘unknowns.’ As an interpreter, one often has to translate restaurant menus ‒ a bloody minefield! I can’t tell sole from plaice even in my native language to start with. Here are some other examples of food-related pitfalls.

A good 20 years ago, my family and I visited the Channel island of Jersey. At a restaurant there, my dad was asked how he’d like his meat. He hesitated. He likes his meat rare, which, in German, is called ‘englisch’. He was quick-witted enough to know it can’t be ‘English’ in English. So he laughed apologetically and simply said, ‘Bloody!’ The waiter understood, laughed, and explained politely for future use that the correct term would be ‘rare’. (Funnily enough, when my English husband was recently asked, in England, how he’d like his steak, he said ‘English, please!’ without hesitation – yet another token of successful Germanisation.)

A couple of years ago, a kind of mushroom caused quite a stir. We were at a chamber music festival with some family and friends. During the interval, we wanted to pre-order food at a local restaurant. I translated the menu for my husband, just to realise that I had no clue what Steinpilze are in English. So we all offered expansive explanations … It’s a type of mushroom … In German, we say ‘stone mushrooms’ … (blank face) ‘rock mushrooms?’ … (blank face) They are big long mushrooms with a white stem and a brown top … (blank face) … They are used a lot in Italian cuisine … (blank face) … In Italian they are called ‘porcini’. ‘Ah,’ exclaimed Mr K, ‘porcini mushrooms!’ Sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face …

Another bottomless pit are the often adventurous translations of menus at holiday destinations. Entire books have been written about this. I remember Axel Hacke’s favourite example of ‘Zwiebel ruft an’ for ‘onion rings’ (a literal translation in the sense of an onion using the telephone). But even renowned hotels like The Kempinski in Berlin do not seem to attach too much importance to a proper version of their food offerings for English-speaking guests (see photo below, from a lunch during an interpreting job).


Next week, let’s move from pitfalls to potholes.

The Pommes-Buddha says: Would you like an Asiatic dough sack with that?

Listen to this text as a podcast episode:

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