Friday, September 21, 2007

No Smashed Balls: Food Mistranslations

An article I wrote awhile back based on bad translations of dishes on menus and cookbooks has now been published in Verbatim magazine. I'm posting it here, too, so you can enjoy a little humor over the weekend.

Thanks, But I Think I’ll Pass on the Smashed Balls
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

It all started with a rabbit on whipped cream.

I was in Prague when I found that odd-sounding dish on a menu. No, thanks, I thought, imagining Thumper splashing a cloud of whipped cream around the room. Before long I was tempted by an oven-baked joint – really, what’s the point of baking your marijuana? – and some well-hung meat – no comment necessary. Soon I realized the importance of a well-translated and carefully-edited menu, especially for restaurants eager to attract an international, professional audience.

Some mistranslations and misspellings are not only puzzling, they can also be rather revolting. For example, I was not really enticed by pee soup, cock terrine, roach terrine, or bowels in sauce, and I was somewhat frightened by the violent-sounding skewer on blackened loin and the fried potatoes stuffed with flesh. Tender lamp was not illuminating and, as much as I like Sweden, eating pink-roasted Swedes is not too appetizing.

As I have a major interest for food that includes writing occasional articles about restaurants in Scandinavia and working on cookbooks, I decided something had to be done about this. Sometimes while eating at a restaurant, I would helpfully mention that the English translation of menu items such as cheese with accomplishments – how proud they must be of their cheese! – or duck with dry fruits and jewels – aren’t jewels a bit tough to chew? – might be just a little off. At some restaurants, I was rewarded with glasses of wine; other places didn’t seem too interested to know that offering plates piled high with rags of suckling pig might not draw in the crowds. Later, instead of helping for free, out of the generosity of my good-food-loving-heart, I incorporated food translations into my translation business. Of course, any translator is proud of a translation well done, but at the same time, I can’t help but think of all the restaurant patrons who will be robbed of the enjoyment that comes with wondering what exactly has annoyed that fed-up chicken, why the petrified trout is so scared, and if there is in fact anything in the bowl of grilled fatless lard.

Goose liver in veal farce indeed.


Erika D. said...

Brett, this is a wonderful article. Thanks for posting it!

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you, Erika!

Eric Dickens said...

Some of the mistranslations of food are priceless!

I too have had the occasional success getting restaurants to mend their ways. My local pub in the Netherlands got me to iron out one or two oddities in their menu.

The classic in the field of mistranslation isn't in the food section, but is still hilarious:

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Eric! I hope your local pub gave you a few free drinks to thank you.
And thanks for the link, too. You can see what inspired Monty Python's famous Hungarian phrasebook sketch! See

Best wishes,

Charles said...

It's not just food that is rich . . .

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks, Charles!