Food and translation

Renée Desjardins
Table of contents

In An Edible History of Humanity, Standage (2009: 23–24) indicates that linguistic and archaeological evidence both support a connection between language dispersion and the diffusion of agriculture: “Today, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population speaks a language belonging to one of seven language families that had their origins in two agricultural homelands: the Fertile Crescent and parts of China. The languages we speak today, like the foods we eat, are descended from those used by the first farmers”. Indeed, the spread and use of specific languages intersects with food behaviours and positions communication and translation (since hunter-gatherers and farmers likely had to communicate across languages to trade knowledge and tools) as inherent to food and agricultural history. In today’s contemporary world, translation is central to food production and supply chains. Contemporary consumers have increasingly diversified palates and with the influence of social media, which hosts a wealth of food-related aspirational content, the demand for fresh food and non-local foods is insatiable. This has meant a rise in temporary, migrant, and foreign workforces in areas such as agriculture and meat-processing. Extant research has examined issues related to food supply and the employment of migrant workers, but research on the fundamental role translation plays here, on all levels (from self-translation to the availability of human resources documentation in worker languages), is limited and sometimes even censured. For instance, recent reporting in North America has suggested that meat-processing plants did not provide sufficient or adequately translated materials to inform plant workers on public health measures and risks related to COVID-19, the presupposition being that English should suffice as a pivot language and/or as a lingua franca (Baum, Tait, & Grant 2020). Research on the subject of translation and food was previously circumscribed to the study of food-related discourse in literature, menu, recipe, and label translation, and the translation of culinary tourism discourse. However, the research intersections between food and translation are continuously broadening. More recently, there has been a notable shift towards sociologically-oriented work and intersectional lenses, wherein issues related to social justice and food security are examined. Translation is ubiquitous as far as food is concerned: from how nutritional labels are translated, to how some dishes become “translations” of a culture, to machine automated translations of restaurant reviews or social media posts, to cookbook or recipe translation. Moreover, if one is to consider a non-anthropocentric perspective, then the overlaps between food and translation multiply: from the “translational” interaction of microbes in the process of fermentation (Desjardins 2019), to the relationships humans maintain with animals and other species, particularly regarding intersemiotic communication and human-animal interactions (Cronin 2015), to name only these two examples.

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Further essential reading

Chiaro, Delia
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