Read the article in Finnish

Our translator Laura Savolainen is especially fond of translating texts related to food. Below, she describes what this work is like.

“I must try this at home…”

I love cooking. As a young student attending an art-oriented high school, I thought I’d love to work in a creative environment, such as the theatre, for instance. But, I eventually ended up working as a translator, which is something I’m very happy about these days. You can always channel your creativity into cooking. It’s like painting: tastes and smells are colours, consistencies are textures, and dishes are canvasses. That is why the food-related texts that we get to translate every now and then, such as websites or cook books, are among my favourite tasks at work.


Nuts to crack

A good recipe is both clear and accurate and will lead to the desired result when followed precisely. It is unambiguous, leaving no room for interpretation. A colleague of mine was recently shocked to find a recipe that she was translating was so ambiguous that she couldn’t possibly have prepared the dish using it. For instance, it included instructions like “grate slices of cheese spread”.

Translating recipes requires some practical knowledge and experience of cooking, and you cannot always get help or replies to your queries from the customer. You always have to be alert to the possibility of errors. In particular, if the amounts indicated in the recipe don’t sound right, this should set alarm bells ringing in your head. The QA feature in translation tools is very useful with these kind of issues.

The world of cuisine is packed with so called false friends, or ‘faux amis’. Cumin is not ‘kumina’ in Finnish as you would expect, but rather ‘jeera’ or ‘juustokumina’ instead, and anchovy is not ‘anjovis’, but ‘sardelli’, for instance. But what kind of food is a pancake? Is it a thin unleavened crêpe or galette, a thick cake prepared with baking powder, or a big oven-baked flat cake popular in Finland?


Recipes to suit Finnish tastes

Recipes usually follow a set pattern. For instance in Finland, the list of ingredients usually only mentions the ingredient itself, whereas in some countries it will include a description of how the ingredient is prepared. For instance, the list of ingredients in the source text may include ‘1 bell pepper, finely chopped’. The Finnish translation will look much neater and more idiomatic when you explain the method of preparation later in the actual instruction.

Finnish has a huge number of expressive verbs that come in very handy for food-related translations. Useful Finnish equivalents for the English word chop include, for instance: ‘pilkkoa’, ‘paloitella’, ‘silputa’, ‘pieniä’, ‘hienontaa’, ‘leikata’, ‘hakata’ and ‘halkoa’, indicating precisely how a certain ingredient should be prepared.


Wrestling with measurements

Translating food-related texts often involves converting measurements. The translator has to decide how accurately the converted measures need to be rendered in order to achieve the desired result. In general, there is no point making the cook struggle with measurements like 0.236 litres (1 cup), when the recipe will be far easier to follow if you round it up to 2.5 dl. The translator may need to figure out how much flour and baking powder is needed if the original recipe uses self-raising flour, which is not available in Finland. And how much is 1 stick of butter or a packet of spice mix? Another problem to solve is which of the many Finnish dairy products would be the best equivalent when the original recipe uses double cream or clotted cream.


Rare and unusual ingredients

Another challenge we face is what to do when a certain ingredient is either hard to find or not available in Finland. Finnish cuisine has diversified tremendously in a short period of time. In the 1980s, eating ‘Chinese’ food, could refer to any exotic dish from Asia, whereas today you can easily find an abundance of different Asian foods in Finland, including from Korea and Vietnam. If you live in Helsinki, you may be able to get hold of some very unusual foodstuffs that may not be available in smaller towns. Does your local market stock ‘clipfish’, for instance? Or will the recipe work if you cannot find ‘cream of tartar’? One benefit of the increased diversification in Finnish eating habits, towards a more international direction, is the reduced need to explain certain special terms and phenomena. Today, we too can ‘glaze’ and ‘flambé’.

The world of cuisine is a dive into an ocean of tastes, smells, colours and cultures, and the translator’s task is to make these accessible to the international reader in the most relevant form. It is fascinating. On the downside, while translating texts related to food, you tend to get hungry…


Here’s something you can try at home:

The recipe for what we term ‘Maris pastries’ also originates from Laura’s own kitchen. Click on the link to get Laura’s recipe.