Adaptation in Food Translation

BLT sandwich
Image by winjohn

As the only (advanced) Russian speaker in our company, I sometimes need to consult my colleagues on certain translation choices and conventions. A question I was asked recently was whether the “BLT” in the translated name of a menu item would make sense to the readers and whether it should be left in English.

This actually touches upon what is referred to as domesticating or foreignizing translation. In a nutshell, a domesticating translation makes the text (or any content) look as if it had been written in the target language — that into which the text was translated. By contrast, a foreignizing translation emphasizes that the text was “imported” from elsewhere and strives to reflect the foreign culture and reality for which there may be no exact equivalents in the new language. Both approaches have rationales behind them, depending on the type of text and the author’s — and translator’s! — intention. I will not be discussing the pros and cons of these approaches here; instead, I will try to illustrate their implications for translating something as culture-specific as food.

An important concept to keep in mind is intertextuality. So, going back to our example, “BLT” does not exist in a vacuum. It stands for bacon, lettuce, and tomato, and evokes images of diner food or fast food. Many restaurants in the US have the BLT sandwich on their menus. If you were to ask an older relative about it, they would certainly know what a BLT sandwich was and would probably share a story or two from their past that involved it.

Now, let us examine the two scenarios for translating “BLT” — into Russian, in this case, even though it may work with other languages. You could transcribe BLT phonetically in Cyrillic letters. In other words, you would approximate the sound of the acronym in Russian. Would your average Russian with no prior exposure to American diner/fast food know what that stood for? Probably not. Nothing about the sounds of “BLT” would tell the client that they were buying bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

Alternatively, you may opt for translating the ingredients of the sandwich, resulting in something like “a sandwich with bacon, lettuce, and tomato.” That’s closer to what the English name literally says. This way, the name is more accessible to the client, but it loses the ties to the original American food.

Yet, most international companies seem to opt for the first approach, leaving the names in English with any applicable changes in pronunciation and writing system (see the Russian pages of McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s). I have just discussed the pitfalls of this approach. The sound combination Cheekin Mucknuggits (as pronounced in Russian) will reveal neither the ingredients nor the shape of the menu item. The name of the food becomes a catchy but meaningless tagline. However, you could argue there are pluses to this approach. By calling their foods the same name — almost a brand name — around the world, these multinationals seem to say, “No matter where you get the X, it’s going to be the quality you have come to expect from our company.”

What’s your take? If you ran a transnational restaurant chain, would you translate the names of your foods, and why?

Published by Maria

Russian health and human services translator based in Rochester, New York

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