Where’s the beef?

Where’s the beef?

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First-hand knowledge can be vital

We often say that, as translators, we don’t just deal with words, we deal with cultures and knowledge. That was brought home to me last week when I was given a menu to translate. It seemed a simple enough job and I didn’t have too much trouble with it, but the restaurant owner was one of those awkward customers who wouldn’t stop querying what I produced. So, I spent what felt like half the week fielding queries sent to me by the long-suffering agency in the middle along the lines of “You’ve put X but shouldn’t it be Y”.

Clearly beef. But this is a picture of "ternera".

Clearly beef. But this is a picture of “ternera”.

One of these concerned the word “ternera” in Spanish, or “vedella” in Catalan, which I had translated, without a second thought, as “beef”. “Shouldn’t it,” asked the customer, “really be ‘veal’?” And, of course, if you look in any dictionary, that would be the first definition you found. So why had I been so cavalier in going against the wisdom of the dictionary? The answer is simple: I eat “ternera” most weeks, and I eat beef in England, and I can confirm from personal experience that they are one and the same thing.  By contrast, veal is a white, tender meat from young milk-fed calves which I personally have never found on any menu in all the time I’ve lived in Catalonia and which is certainly nothing like the “ternera” or “vedella” in the supermarket chiller cabinets here.


I should know. I’ve learned an awful lot in Catalan supermarkets. I’ve always cooked and I do quite a lot of food shopping, which meant that one of the first things I had to get to grips when I first came was finding the local equivalents to the ingredients I was used to cooking with. I also had to get used to the fact that, depending on where you shopped, some things were labelled in Spanish and others in Catalan. I learned that stock cubes were different here, that tomato purée doesn’t exist and that you couldn’t ask people where the eggs were without getting a smirk or funny look in response (“eggs” in Spanish or Catalan more or less equating to “balls” in English, which makes “Have you got any eggs?” a very leading question, whether the shop assistant is male or female).

Back in the world of translation, context is also decisive. I was not dealing with an upmarket restaurant of the kind that might just have been cooking with real veal. In fact, in several of the cases where the word “ternera” occurred, it was associated with burgers. As I pointed out to the customer, look on the Internet and you will find approximately seventeen times as many references to beefburgers as to vealburgers. Not only that, the pictures of beefburgers precisely match the picture of the burgers on the menu I was dealing with.


Veal calves

But cultural knowledge can give you even more than that. Having lived the first 35 years of my life in England, I also know that wrongly putting veal on a menu instead of beef could be a costly mistake for a restaurant that wants to attract British tourists. In my previous life as a journalist, the local newspaper I worked for regularly used to cover protests by animal rights activists against the export of calves to Holland and Denmark to be reared for veal. And even among non-activists, a widespread British view of veal is that it is a luxury and cruelly produced meat that many people, even if they’re not vegetarians, don’t want to eat. That’s hardly going to sell dishes in a restaurant, which makes unnecessarily labelling something veal a far worse mistake than a simple translation error.


I finally convinced the customer to go with my original translation and beef is staying on the menu. But, had I been unsuccessful, it wouldn’t have been the first time veal had appeared on a menu here when the meat being described was clearly beef, either because the translation has been done by a slave to the dictionary or by someone unaware of exactly what the words mean in one or other language.

The lesson, I suppose, is not for me, but for customers. If they want quality translations that get the details right, they should be choosing translators who have real experience, not just of the languages they work with but of the countries where they are used. In the case I’m describing, of course, the customer was working through an agency and didn’t know who was doing her translation. If she had, I might even have managed to get her to trust me!


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