“..and the word was made flesh” was a phrase, my education having been charged to Roman Catholics, that I often heard yet understood not at all. Words became my friends early on and they would have been even more welcome had they been edible. Eating had not yet become a pastime in those post war days: food was rationed, eating occurred at scheduled times and I treated food solely as fuel. Getting enough fuel was the problem to which I devoted endless ingenuity. In my pre pubescent years food held sway in my imagination to the point where I remember defacing the title on my Shorter Latin Primer so that it appeared as the Shortbread Eating Primer, which creative editing was thoroughly worth the six strokes of the cane that was deemed a fair punishment for such a flagrant display of greed. As the years passed my mind divided its time between food and sexual fantasy until, by my mid teens, food was totally forgotten as there just wasn’t room for it in my cerebral seraglio. It was not until my late twenties that I was introduced to a sort of food which bore little or no resemblance to that which I had previously known. It was a coup de foudre…I was in love. The love of food and cooking is invested with the core qualities of true love in that it sustains those with whom it is shared whilst simultaneously giving pleasure. With words and food in mind I have started to reflect as to how I would overcome the problems of understanding a menu, or indeed shopping for ingredients, in a land whose language was unknown,or at least unfamiliar, to me.
As I count myself among the worst travelled people in the world this has presented me with problems that I had not previously considered. I say “worst” rather than “least” as I have indeed travelled but completely failed to take any notice of these exotic destinations while I was there. I tended to spend my holidays in the hotel to which I had travelled where I passed my time wondering as to why I was frittering away my money in some far flung fleshpot when I knew I was quite capable of extreme frittering in the comfort of my own home and that without the misery of the airport experience. Whilst some web sites and businesses may use online translation software there is an abundance of signage, menus and other documentation that suggests that many do not, which omission leads to the most creative examples of nonsense writing, outside of the works of Lewis Carroll. It may be true to say that the majority of translations from one language to another, unless undertaken by academics with a deep and exhaustive knowledge of both languages, are at best loose and at worst comical. This misunderstanding is not limited to places off the beaten track as I have come across hopelessly inept translations even in the cosmopolitan French riviera where, in an Armenian restaurant, I saw some extraordinary translations from French into English such as “let us pepper and mussels” for “moules au poivrons” which is a perfect example of someone misusing a dictionary to create nonsense. It makes me think that “Fritto misto mare” could be translated as “frittering in a sea mist” at which I am very accomplished.
Computer generated translations can be even more arcane as this recent invitation to participate in an auction of photographic prints for charity illustrates: ” As a plastic festival-goer photograph, would you like to take part of this exceptional event and offer one or several of your food photographs to put them on sale? In this capacity, we inform you that this rummage sale is only looking for the emphasis of your work: the auction results of a rummage sale aren’t published therefore your rate won’t be changed in a good or a bad way.” It’s the miraculous fashion by which words, that I recognise, are so rearranged as to be so close to having a meaning whilst avoiding that all important purpose with the aerobatic agility of a fat man, silkily airborne at the moment of slipping on a banana skin, that takes away my breath. It is this verbal prestidigitation that leads me to be more confused by the translated instruction manual for a new TV set, manufactured somewhere such as Taiwan or Korea, than ever with any food situation. Trying to make a machine function according to instructions created and translated by another machine that has been operated by someone with little or no knowledge of my language is too Kafkaesque for most people…and me. Food, on the other hand, can be assembled without resorting to a handbook. It matters not a fig/viikuna/fica/incir/fik or feige what the sign on a box of figs says because you can see the figs/viikuna/ficas/incirs/fiks and feiges in the fucking box: so figs can safely be on the menu and so it goes on. Somehow food can be worked out in whatever language but it’s the other parts of life that are so confusing and so easily translated to mean exactly the opposite of that which was intended. The remarkable Gerard Hoffnung, in his letters from a Tyrolean landlord gives a wonderful example of how the letter written with the aid of a foreign language dictionary can end in tears whilst the following piece, that I found on the internet, shows how a computer generated translation takes us into a world hitherto unimagined by the traveller.
Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests.
This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery. Highly skilled nurses are available in the evenings to put down your children. Guests are invited to conjugate in the bar and expose themselves to others. But please note that ladies are not allowed to have babies in the bar. We organize social games, so no guest is ever left alone to play with them self.
Our menus have been carefully chosen to be ordinary and unexciting. At dinner, our quartet will circulate from table to table, and fiddle with you.
Every room has excellent facilities for your private parts. In winter, every room is on heat. Each room has a balcony offering views of outstanding obscenity! You will not be disturbed by traffic noise, since the road between the hotel and the lake is used only by pederasts.
Your bed has been made in accordance with local tradition. If you have any other ideas please ring for the chambermaid. Please take advantage of her. She will be very pleased to squash your shirts, blouses and underwear. If asked, she will also squeeze your trousers.
When you leave us at the end of your holiday, you will have no hope. You will struggle to forget it.”