Taste Lost in Translation

One sunny afternoon I was standing at a bus stop enjoying the summer sun when a lady approached and handed me a brochure. Bored as I was I started to browse it, and it turned out to be an advert for one of Krakow’s middle-standard lunch bars, featuring a menu list. And there they were again! My personal favourites! You think pierogi? No, dear readers, I mean translation slips and inaccuracies that I simply love to drag out to daylight from indoor and outdoor ads all over Krakow.

Actually, there’s nothing to laugh about. For me as a Pole who knows English quite well, it’s a disgrace. It turns out that my city, although it claims to be European, has features of a communist past combined with a bourgeoisie attitude – in other words, why should we bother with a professional translation of our menu, since someone who knows basic English can do it in no time using a dictionary? And even if there was a mistake in the text, the foreigners will definitely forgive us, as they will be delighted to be here and eat at our place…

The above said theory proves to be true when one looks at what has been written in the ads – e.g. salmon is written with a capital letter, whereas Paris or Budapest are spelt in lowercase; the names of the ingredients or meals are completely wrong and local culinary peculiarities are translated literally, without proper explanation. A good example would be the phrase “in Polish style” or “in any other country or city’s style” (Hungarian, Parisian etc.). It is a literal translation of the phrase “po polsku,” “po węgiersku,” etc., which means nothing more than that we Poles have associated the taste of a dish with a particular place in the world, and the dish offered on the menu is prepared similarly to other characteristic dishes of that other country or city. So if you see “potato pancakes in Hungarian style,” it means that these are deep fried mashed raw potato pancakes with meat and paprika sauce on it, resembling a goulash – a meat and paprika stew characteristic of Hungarian cuisine. That’s it. But who would have thought of that? Local cuisine is a sort of a non-verbal language that one has to translate and explain to fully show the beauty (or in this case the taste) of it.

Another peculiarity is “po staropolsku,” translated as “in old-Polish style.” Now what is that? The mechanism of the translation has been explained above, but here is another problem. The adjective “staropolski” is used in various contexts all over Poland, but particularly in places that are associated with Poland’s history, and Krakow is definitely one of them. The word brings to mind any connotations associated with the times of the noblemen?s democracy, roughly from the 16th to the 18th century. At that time, noblemen’s manors were known for preserving the best of Polish chivalry and hospitality traditions, and the food there was of supreme quality and taste. So if you find a “staropolski” meal or hotel, the owner wants to assure you that there you’ll find good food and service. But unfortunately using such methods is a psychological problem – such associations can only be made in Poles’ heads, as each country and culture has its own collocations with what’s traditional and good. Thus, in foreigner’s heads, “staropolski” evokes nothing.

However, restaurant owners are not aware of the fact that their menus are communicating with potential customers and that they are not able to understand fully what they’re being offered. For me that sort of behaviour is completely opposite to Polish hospitality, so much underlined in the majority of guide books about Poland. Too bad that when a tourist comes, lured in by reading these menus, he feels completely lost and visits McDonald’s, a pizza restaurant or a pierogi bar, as these names do not mean anything for them. In such a way a great deal of Poland and Krakow is lost to newcomers, but not very many people recognise this. Since Krakow has spent so much on international advertising it could at least not waste it in such a reckless way.

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