Translating Recipes 5: Fluid Translation 1

By Carla Nappi

[This is the first post in a two-part series on Fluid Translation. For the second post, check back tomorrow!]

Welcome back to the “Translating Recipes” series! For the next two posts, we’ll continue to think about the relationship between translation, recipes, and storytelling. In previous posts we’ve done that by considering what it looks like to translate a recipe into a fairy tale and a drama. Today and tomorrow, we’ll move to our third experiment: translating a recipe into a song.

The inspiration for this experiment comes from an attempt to use this series to not only challenge our assumptions about the narrative form (or lack thereof) of recipes, but also to think differently about translation. With that in mind, think with me, for a moment or two, about fluids. (By “fluid” here I don’t mean simply a synonym for one part of the liquid-solid-gas triptych that most of us have learned about when studying phase changes in elementary chemistry: I mean, instead, any stuff that flows.) The reason for this will become clear as you read.

When we think about translation, we tend to understand it in terms of a process in which static, individual entities (terms, ideas, sentences, etc.) are made equivalent to other static, individual entities. If we understand a medical recipe book as a collection of individual elements (ingredients, terms, ideas) to be changed and transposed in that way, understanding how a recipe is translated means understanding how translators equate individual elements, how they find an A (Panax ginseng), B (water), and C (spirit) that are roughly equivalent to X (orhoda), Y (muke), and Z (sukdun). A history of translation (of a recipe, for example, or of drug knowledge) thereby becomes a kind of comparative history. Like any comparative history, this approach both benefits and drawbacks: though a comparative approach lets us see new facets of something (let’s say, the English language) by putting it into a relationship with something else (let’s say, Manchu), in order to compare two things we typically need to hold them steady and solid (for example, considering “the English language” and “Manchu” as coherent objects) and ignore differences and complications within the contexts that we’re comparing. Some people refer to the latter move as “essentializing” the objects or contexts being compared.

Instead, what if we thought about translation not in terms of solid objects, but in terms of fluids? When we think about fluids and fluidity, we tend to think about motion: movement, flow. If we treated translation as an explicitly fluid process, we would emphasize flux and flow in the practice of translation: we would consider the terms, objects, and ideas of translation as always and explicitly in motion and already in the process of transformation. If we understood a medical recipe and the context from which it emerges to be fluids (rather than collections of solid entities), then the translation of a recipe becomes not a transposition of individual elements, but instead a process of redirecting flows. In that case, comparing the nature of the change from A to B is no longer the goal of the translator: instead, the goal is trying to understand the kind of work done by the flow of a recipe in a new context, the path it cuts in its new contextual ground, taking into account, perhaps, the degree of turbulence of the flow. (For the purpose of understanding our Manchu translators and the recipes they composed, the goal then is not to understand how they came up with individual Manchu things (orhoda, muke) that were equivalent to other, non-Manchu things (ginseng, water), but instead to understand how they learned to move within a language, embed themselves in its flow, and redirect that flow into another context.

Sometimes understanding and moving with that flow is just as much about the sound of words, their rhythm, the relationships they create with one another, as it is about their semantic meaning. In the case of a recipe, understanding and moving with the flow of the text is about understanding how some of those textual processes create bodily experiences, and seeking to recreate resonant experiences in a different context. Since Manchu was a medium of translation, and a language that incorporated sounds, terms, and materials from many other languages, it could be used by translators to redirect and consolidate flows from many different contexts. This is just the kind of work that our Manchu medical recipes did.

In addition to this conceptual fluidity that I’ve only just begun to introduce here, flows of fluids – water, wine, oil, breath – were also materially crucial in Manchu recipe literature. Fluids saturated human bodies: they bathed them, flowed within them, and were poured upon them. Paying careful attention to the particular ways that fluids suffused Manchu bodies and putting this into dialogue with other (not as obviously material) forms of fluidity helps us see some of the ways that fluidity provided a bridge between text and matter in this context, and possibly beyond.

How might thinking about this inform our experiment in translating Manchu recipes? Thinking in terms of fluidity allows us to conceptualize language in terms of the properties of fluids: in a text, how might language flow like water, like oil, like wine? How might we (our practices, our movements, our awareness of our experiences and the actions we take in conjunction with them) flow in time and space, and how might the language of a text enable that flow? What kinds of textual forms embody movement and fluidity? The next post in this two-part series will continue to think about recipes and their translation in these terms by experimenting with a style of translation inspired by these ideas. It will attempt to translate a Manchu recipe that we’ve seen before into musical terms, in an effort to start to get at the movement and fluidity of recipe language. Stay tuned!

Cite this blog post
Carla Nappi (2014, August 7). Translating Recipes 5: Fluid Translation 1. The Recipes Project. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

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