The Taste of Words

Have you ever thought about how a word tastes? I don’t want you to lick a word in a book (or on your computer screen, come to think of it), but rather, think about how a word can impact your impression before you’ve even brought your fork to your mouth. One of my specialisms is transcreation and translation for the food and beverages sector, so I spend a lot of my time considering one word over another and rolling it round my mouth before deciding to add it to a menu or reference it in a recipe.

How we describe food, and flavours, is something that’s deeply personal – after all, what is one person’s “delicious”, might be another’s “dégueulasse”. We each have a lifetime of memories and associations with food; our relationship with it is the culmination of childhood memories, teenage traumas and adult encounters. When I think about my own moreish memories I get: my Mum making French toast (or “lost bread” as we call it in French) for breakfast at my childhood home, an appreciation for the exceedingly Belgian braised endives (a taste which, I’ll admit, has taken me several years to cultivate), and a vegetarian lasagne of homemade dough, aubergine and ricotta cooked lovingly for me by my sweetheart….the flavours, the smells, the sights, the sounds, they all conjure up images in your mind when you cast your mind back.

Our brains are incredibly complex, but in some ways they operate in a simple fashion too. Our subconscious can’t always separate a memory from the emotion it produced at the time (which is why we feel the same rage, embarrassment or euphoria months, or even years, after an event.) It’s the same with food - the emotions and experiences at the time influence our future foodie selves.

For translators and transcreators like me, this makes our job that bit more tricky. Writing about food can be complicated enough, even in your own language. Adding adjectives can work wonders when it comes to describing food – whether you’re translating the consistency of a sauce for a cookery book, or describing the spring of a soufflé – but add in another language and you’ve got to consider whether that adjective has the same, not to mention the correct, connotation for your target audience. Are there cultural, political, emotional or historical subtexts to the words you’ve used? A natural, national aversion to certain phrases? Could the terms you’ve chosen be considered inappropriate or worse – insulting?

Another consideration is the way words sound together. Descriptions of food and beverages rely on language for their “attractive factor”. This might mean alliteration, rhyming, rhythm or just clever wordplay. Making this sort of linguistic light-footedness work in another language is a singular skill – it’s not just about the meaning, but, like a fine wine, how those puns and palindromes feel on the palate. This means that instead of a simple transfer of words from one language to another, it becomes more about communicating a meaning (or feeling) and making sure that resonates with the new audience, who must experience the same tastes and textures within the context of their lives and language.

In my experience, being something of a gourmande has helped me immeasurably in my work as a translator and transcreator for the food and beverages sector. Writing about food is made infinitely easier (and more pleasurable) precisely because I find food so pleasurable in the first place.

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