Culinary Translation: The Art of Translating for the Food and Beverage Industry
The culinary world is one of the most fascinating and complex realms of human endeavour. It is a field where tradition, artistry, and science all come together to create something that people can enjoy on multiple levels. And at the heart of it is culture: The traditions, recipes, and flavours that make up the culinary heritage of a people. Culinary translation, or gastronomy translation, is the art of communicating traditions, recipes, and flavours in another language.
Some people speak of gastronomy as an art, and it is certainly true that there is an aesthetic element to it. But it is also a science, in the sense that there are precise methods and techniques involved in its practice. And like any other field, culinary translation requires a deep understanding of the subject matter. We’ve interviewed Antonella Racca, co-founder of Crisol Translation Services and a culinary translator with over 10 years of experience, to get her insights on this fascinating field.
What is culinary translation?
At its most basic, culinary translation is the act of translating content for the food and beverage industry, be it recipes and other food-related content, from one language to another. But as Antonella points out, there is so much more to it than that:
“I conceive of culinary translation as the transmission of a culinary culture from one linguistic-cultural context to another. This involves not only translating recipes but also understanding the concepts and traditions behind them.”
Is culinary translation creative or technical?
Culinary translation is part art and part science, like gastronomy itself. Simply transferring the meaning of individual words from one language to another isn’t enough – some gastronomic texts are flowery and poetic, while others are highly technical. A culinary translator needs to be able to understand and convey the nuances of both types of language. In Antonella’s words:
“Just like cooking, gastronomy translation has both a creative and a technical side. Some texts will show one of those sides more than the other. If you’re translating the package instructions of a certain product, any lack of terminological consistency can end up in chaos. I mean, it can significantly affect the behaviour of whoever uses the product.
Same thing for recipes. In Spanish, for example, some ingredients or foods have more than one name. Besides, this varies to an incredible extent across countries and across regions of the same country! If you don’t stick to one denomination throughout the translated recipe, or if you fail to localise terms correctly, the recipe will likely go wrong. Needless to say, the brand will fail from a marketing point of view, too.
One example of the creative aspect of culinary translation is that gastronomy texts need to appeal to the reader so that the flavour of a whole culture (and not just of a particular dish) comes across. This requires the translator to be able to identify and express what is special about the culinary tradition they are representing.”
Is machine translation enough for food and beverage content?
The answer to the question of whether machine translation can cut it for gastronomic content is almost always “no”. But it also depends on the type of content within the food and beverage industry.
It’s not our intention to vilify machine translation. The advice isn’t “don’t use it”, but rather, “know where and how to use it.”
There are indeed parts of a website that constitute near-perfect use cases and lend themselves to machine translation. These are:
- Low-visibility or low-traffic content (e.g., internal documentation, website footers)
- Repetitive and actionable technical content that doesn’t need 100% accuracy (e.g., instruction manuals for a kitchen appliance)
- High-volume content that needs immediate translation (e.g., hundreds of food product descriptions for an e-commerce site that need to go live ASAP)
- Low-engagement, low-risk content that won’t leave a bad impression if there are some machine translation errors (e.g., help desk knowledge bases or FAQs)
- User-generated content like product reviews, for which consumers generally expect low quality
- Quickly perishable content, like chat or email support messages, customer inquiries, etc.
These areas often do not need nuanced translations because they deal with factual information that doesn’t require cultural context or technical accuracy.
When to avoid Google Translate or similar automated process for gastronomy translation:
- High-visibility or high-traffic web pages (e.g., landing pages) where typos or inaccuracies could erode the user’s trust in your product or brand
- Content meant to engage or convert customers. Purchase decisions are emotionally driven, and emotional responses are shaped by culture.
- Culturalised content meant to drive user engagement in specific countries
- Content meant to boost SEO rankings
- Content that includes measurement units that need converting
What skills does a culinary translator need?
As we’ve seen, culinary translation is a complex task requiring creative and technical skills. But what specific skills does a translator need to do it well? In Antonella’s view:
Professional translation training
“First of all, culinary translators need to be able to write well in both their source and target languages. Professional translation training helps with that. It’s also important to have a solid understanding of the theory and practice of translation, as well as an awareness of different approaches to the task.”
Deep understanding of industry terminology
“What’s the difference between ‘gourmet’ and ‘Haute cuisine’? What’s the difference between ‘curry’ and ‘masala’? A culinary translator needs to know the answer to questions like these, to be able to choose the right term in each context.”
A passion for food and cooking
“It goes without saying that culinary translators must be passionate about food and cooking! They should have a good understanding of gastronomy and know about different cooking methods, ingredients, measurements, and dishes from around the world.”
Excellent research skills
“Next, culinary translators need to be good researchers. They should be able to find the information they need on culinary topics quickly, and they should also be familiar with the various resources that are available to them (e.g. bilingual dictionaries, culinary glossaries, etc.).
An insatiable curiosity can also be a great asset – I’ve personally gone as far as having my DNA analysed to find out more about my ancestry and to learn about the culinary traditions of my ancestors! Little did I expect to find out that I’ve got the cilantro gene… Anyone else out there who feels that cilantro tastes like soap?”
An understanding of context
“It’s also important for culinary translators to understand the cultural context in which the text they are translating will be read or used. One of our clients produces content for a food delivery app aimed at chefs in busy kitchens – with the amount of shouting, clattering, and general noise going on in those kinds of environments, the text needs to be short, snappy, and easy to understand. In contrast, our work for a luxury food company requires a more delicate and embellished style.”
What types of texts does gastronomy translation involve?
Culinary translation covers various text types, from recipes and menus to food labels and packaging. The marketing and promotion of food products and services, especially if the brand aims for an international audience, also relies heavily on translation. And with the rise of social media, culinary bloggers and influencers are increasingly translating their content to reach a wider audience.
“One of the most common text types that culinary translators work with is recipes. These can be translated from cookbooks, food websites, or any other type of source.
Another common text type is menus. You can find these in restaurants, cafes, and other food-related businesses. And then you have:
- In-app texts
- Food labels and packaging
- Culinary blog posts and articles
- Social media posts
- Videos and podcasts
- Marketing materials (e.g. brochures, flyers, etc.)
- Culinary websites and apps
- Food-related patents
And the list goes on! At Crisol, one of our biggest culinary clients is REKKI, an app that helps businesses order from their suppliers. I oversee the translation of all the app’s content, from UI strings to app store descriptions. It’s a really diverse and interesting project to work on.”
How can culinary translation clients find the right translator for their project?
When looking for a culinary translator, it’s important to find someone who meets all the above criteria. But how can clients ensure they’ve found the right person for the job? We asked Antonella for her advice:
“The best way to find a culinary translator is to ask for recommendations from other businesses in the food industry. If you know someone who has worked with a culinary translator before, ask them for a referral. Another option is to ask for recommendations on LinkedIn or other professional networking platforms. And you can always ask me! If the project doesn’t fall within my language pair, I’d be happy to put you in touch with one of my colleagues.
Once you have a shortlist of potential translators, the next step is to check their credentials. Make sure they have a degree in translation from a reputable university, and that they are certified by a professional body. Make sure they are a native speaker of the target language and based in-country, so they are familiar with the latest culinary trends. And finally, take a look at their portfolio to get an idea of their translation style and whether it would be a good fit for your project.”
Culinary translation is a complex and specialised form of translation that requires not only linguistic expertise but also cultural knowledge and understanding. The best culinary translators are those who can combine all of these elements to produce accurate, culturally-appropriate, and user-friendly translations that capture the essence of the original text.
Author: Maria Scheibengraf
Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.