How to Translate a Recipe

By Sietske Fransen

Have you ever tried to use a recipe in another language, for example from a foreign language cookbook or the internet? If so, then you probably have struggled with identifying some of the ingredients. Personally, I seem to have an eternal problem with cumin, in other languages, that is. As it is ‘komijn’ in Dutch, and ‘cumin’ in English, it always traps me that the German ‘Kümmel’ is not the thing I am looking for. Even more confusingly, Kümmel seeds looks very similar to cumin seeds, and you find ‘Kümmel’ in German supermarkets as easy as cumin/komijn in English and Dutch ones. But ‘Kümmel’ is in English ‘caraway’ and in Dutch ‘karwij’, whereas the German word for ‘cumin’ is ‘Kreuzkümmel’. And although I knew it was one of those false friends, I did accidentally buy ‘Kümmel’ instead of ‘Kreuzkümmel’ a few weeks ago…

Cumin/komijn/Kreuzkümmel
Cumin/komijn/Kreuzkümmel

 

Caraway/karwij/Kümmel
Caraway/karwij/Kümmel

This is just an example to show that there can be problems with finding the right translation for an ingredient when read in a foreign language. On top of the problem of identification, one might also encounter problems with finding the actual ingredients in a foreign supermarket once you have found the right translation of the word (in my case, it is actually quite hard to find cumin seeds in German supermarkets whereas Kümmel seeds are everywhere). Next to ingredients, there are also many different ways in which quantities are notated in different countries (see for example also Kayla Perkin’s post earlier this month). Fortunately, we can nowadays find lots of conversion tables online.

The problems with translating were not very different in early modern Europe. Recipes for cooking and the making of drugs were circulating widely among physicians, alchemists, families, cooks, and so on. However, the author and reader were not always speaking the same language(s), and translations were therefore needed. How did these people deal with the difficulty of translating recipes?

Many recipes were written in Latin, which circumvented the problem of translation up to a certain level as it was a language widely understood by the community of scholars of the time. However, there was also a long tradition of recipes written in vernacular languages, for example Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (Venice 1555). Recipes were therefore often translated, from Latin into the vernacular and vice versa, and between vernaculars, as we will see in the examples below. One of the difficulties was the translation of ingredients. In my recent research on translations of seventeenth-century medical recipes, I have observed that one of the solutions applied by translators to prevent ambiguity, was to use Latin for the ingredients, even if the rest of the text was in another language.

As an example I shall show a recipe handed down in the medical works of Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), a Flemish physician, who wrote in both Dutch and Latin. Due to Van Helmont’s self-translation between Latin and his mother tongue, and the fact that his texts were translated into German, English, and French within forty years of his death, his works provide current scholars with very valuable material for studying the process and function of early modern translation.

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683
Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Van Helmont published on the plague in both Dutch and Latin. An Latin as ‘Tumulus pestis’, which was published as a part of his Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne 1644), and in Dutch as the second part his Dutch book Dageraed (published posthumously in Amsterdam 1659). Van Helmont described not only his own methods to prevent falling ill from the plague, but he also includes several old recipes which might help as a treatment once someone is infected. Although Van Helmont was very skeptical about the effectiveness of any treatment of the plague, he nevertheless prescribed several sweat potions as potential treatment.

In his Dutch text Dageraed Van Helmont included several full recipes for sweat potions. These potions were supposed to be very effective for driving out fevers. Even though the entire book was written in Dutch, Van Helmont lists the ingredients in Latin with some additional information in Dutch, as can be seen in the picture below.

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384
J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

The Dutch additions are explanations of the Latin terms, but it is clear that without understanding, or knowing, the Latin names of plants one could not find the ingredients. In contrast to the language used for the ingredients, the performative part of the recipe is entirely in Dutch. This contrast marks an interesting division between the linguistically restrictive section of the list of ingredients, and the part where we can find the description of the process or preparation, which often shows a broad variety of vernacular vocabulary. In my opinion this reflects the use of recipes in a practical environment. An environment in which I would expect vernacular languages to be dominant over Latin when practitioners were speaking about the process that is occurring (boiling, distilling, heating, etc.) and the tools they needed (the vessels, pots, instruments, etc.). Therefore, this recipe and the other recipes in Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague, which follow the same pattern int the use of Latin and Dutch, have prompted me to question the status of Latin in these recipes. It seems that the way Latin is used for the naming of ingredients has not much to do with a foreign language anymore, rather it is an incorporation of widely understood terminology into a vernacular language.

In my next blog post in December we shall discover how the two German translators of these recipes dealt with the translation of Dutch and Latin into German.


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