AN INTERVIEW TO BE SAVOURED
|Carmella Abramowitz Moreau
- the interviewee
Carmella Abramowitz Moreau is a translator specializing in culinary translations from French, and living with her family in the 3rd arrondisement of Paris. The interview that follows was conducted by Andrea Bernstein, the spouse and personal chef of your faithful blogger. Andrea, like Carmella, was born in South Africa, where she obtained her doctorate in social work and was Professor of Social Work and Department Head at the University of Natal. After immigrating to the United States and working as an editor of academic texts, Andrea launched a new career as a consultant in the field of leadership development and was involved in the training of senior executives of major American companies. Both Carmella and Andrea are passionate about food and cooking. 
Andrea Bernstein: You grew up in South Africa, where many languages are spoken, (eleven of which are now designated as official languages) but where there was no French influence, unless you count the arrival of the Huguenots at the end of the 17th century. Despite that, you gravitated to the French language, and to everything French, initially by moving to Montreal, at the age of 23, then to France where you completed the Diplôme de Civilisation française at the Sorbonne. You then went on to obtain a diploma in French-English translation, followed by a Masters in the same area. You married a Frenchman, and have lived for 35 years in Paris, where your children were born. What stimulated your interest in learning French and in becoming sufficiently fluent to become a translator?
Carmella Abramowitz Moreau: I completed my first degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa in Social Anthropology and English literature. My main regret regarding this degree is that I studied Zulu for only one year. My father was gifted in languages and read many alphabets. I think he helped instill in me my linguistic curiosity. As a child, I briefly took French lessons with a wonderful teacher but in high school I had to choose between French and Latin and I opted for Latin. My real attachment to, and love of, French began after my first degree, when I started studying French largely on a whim, taking intensive courses at language schools in both Lausanne and Paris, before going to Montreal where I completed a graduate diploma in language teaching. A year at the Sorbonne, also intensive, helped me on the path to fluency. Choosing to settle in a country seems to demand that one at least aspire to fluency. I was lucky to have always benefitted from excellent language and linguistics teachers.
AB: When I look at the list of your translations, it seems you have specialized in art, music and cooking (with some diversions into urbanism, microfinance, science and ethnomedicine). Let’s concentrate on culinary translation for the purposes of this interview. How did you get started in the field?
CAM: My first cookbook translation fell into my lap after someone with whom I had studied translation recommended me to a publisher, knowing that I love cooking and baking, and that I had previously taken courses. One thing led to another, as tends to happen. Some time previously, I had taken weekly pastry-making lessons for a few years with a marvelous pastry chef, also a remarkable teacher. He demystified many aspects of classic French pastry-making for me. Although I don’t necessarily make this sort of thing any more, I can quite easily explain how to make Italian meringue. I can tell if there’s a serious typo in a recipe quantity, or an important ingredient inadvertently omitted, and so on. Since then, I’ve also taken short courses in Viennoiseries and bread-making. But the task of explaining how to fold and roll out puff pastry never gets any easier – I suppose this is the case for any kind of a technical translation. Living in Paris certainly makes it easier to keep up with cooking trends, for example neo-bistro cuisine.
AB: Personally I love reading cookbooks (even if I don’t make most of the recipes). What are some of the special challenges you’ve encountered in translating recipes?
CAM: The most challenging is translating complicated recipes by well-known chefs that are included in books targeted at the general public. They contain ingredients that are often not readily available even here in France, such as the latest vegetable or citrus fruit that they have an exclusive supply line for, a rare breed of meat, a rare species of fish, etc. I have to convey to the home cook how best to reproduce the recipe. Then there are the instructions that are incomplete or fiddly -- recipes that top chefs use in their kitchens where sous-chefs are there to weigh out 43 grams of this and 127 grams of that. Meat cuts also differ from one country to another, even among English-speaking countries (and are far more intricate in France), as do weights of what constitutes egg sizes – an EU medium egg is more or less equivalent to a large US or Canadian egg, and Australia and New Zealand are different again. Added to the egg size difficulty is the French chef’s penchant for weighing yolks and whites – 75 g of egg white converts to about one-third of a cup, but who outside a professional kitchen likes to divvy up eggs? Percentages of butterfat in cream are not specified in certain countries but one needs to know what to use, for example, to make whipped cream or a certain type of ganache. Then there are the chefs who use idiosyncratic or regional terms for the preparation of part of a chicken or a common vegetable. At times, I resort to consulting my butcher or greengrocer. I long for the day when the US will switch to the metric system and kitchen scales become more widespread there, so conversions to the imperial system will no longer be necessary.
AB: How do you deal with the issue of a technical vocabulary? I believe there are often no exact equivalents for French terms.
CAM: I’m frequently asked if this poses a problem. It’s true that often there is no exact word for specific actions, and that French is very rich in technical culinary vocabulary. It’s generally quite easy to explain what has to be done in a few short, explicit phrases. Chiqueter, for example, a word I learned at pastry lessons, is the action involving scoring the edge of two layers of puff pastry to seal them together using the back of a small kitchen knife. And if you were wondering, yes, it tends to be recommended when making galettes des rois. I like to add the French word so that the reader becomes familiar with it.
Changes in language as the world becomes increasingly foodier also need to be taken into account. The other day, I watched the series “Salt Fat Acid Heat”, in which Samin Nosrat made citrus suprêmes. For the moment I’m still sticking to “sections”, but I should think that soon all English speakers will happily be decorating tarts or cake tops with “orange supremes”. (Chicken breasts are another matter.) We have to juggle with the level of readers’ sophistication and how far foodie vocabulary has spread or will have spread by the time the book is published.
AB: Gastronomy is part and parcel of French culture, as testified by the French gastronomic meal being included in the UNESCO list of world intangible heritage. Sitting down to enjoy a meal, whether gastronomic or not, is an integral part of the way of life. Is there any reflection of this facet in recipe books?
CAM: I feel I should preface my answer by saying that I see my task as twofold. Producing a book that will not only sell outside of France but can be used by the people who buy it, and making it as user-friendly as possible, while retaining the French touch in spirit. I don’t feel that making the necessary adaptations is a betrayal in any way, so long as I can remain true to the recipe. Having said that, there is a significant difference in the French and Anglo approaches to recipe writing. An English-language recipe will take the cook by the hand, so to speak, and guide him or her through each step (of course, depending on the target readership’s level of cooking). It will give pan sizes, cooking or baking temperature, an indication of doneness at each stage, the speed for the stand mixer and the length of time to beat at that particular speed. Many a French recipe, translated word for word into English, would look terse, or even unfeasible. Pan size? Oh, just use whatever you have. Indications of doneness? We’ve given you the cooking time – surely that’s enough! Storage instructions? But they go without saying. I suspect that the underlying reason is an assumption that the user of the cookbook will have cooked with a family member during childhood, or spent considerable time watching someone cook full meals, or know what the end result should be. In other words, a great deal of previous knowledge tends to be assumed, so I think that this is where the heritage comes in.
Ingredients have to be listed in order of use – a common recommendation in most English-language cookbook style guides, but not necessarily followed in France. If there is an instruction at the end of the recipe telling the cook to stir in the raisins that have been soaking
in rum for 24 hours, I’ll start the recipe with an instruction to soak them 24 hours ahead. Here is an example I saw only yesterday: Now that we have transitioned from galette des rois season to la Chandeleur and crepes are everywhere, celebrity chef Thierry Marx published an online recipe for a crepe cake. One of the instructions is « Ajouter le lait préalablement porté à ébullition ». After so many years in France, I still find this discombobulating. As someone who cooks quite a lot, I transform it according to logical English-language order. Useful advice, though, is often a thorny issue, as notes generally appear at the end of the recipe in French – too late for some! If possible, I incorporate them as relevantly as possible, but layout does not always permit it.
Photos, too, may be problematic: English-speakers expect the end result to resemble the photo, but French books may provide an “artistic interpretation.” A recipe for a large cake may show several individual portions or be decorated with unspecified ingredients. In cases like this I find myself resorting to what a fellow translator told me is known as “creative insubordination”.
AB: You once told me that cultural issues crop up in the most unexpected ways. Please give us some examples of these.
CAM: Well, one needs to be au fait with all sorts of issues. A chef who provided a recipe in a book I translated recently advised his readers to use only Iranian pistachios, for, in his opinion, nowhere else are such fine quality nuts produced. I don’t know how well this would go down in a country with a ban on many products from Iran, not to mention the fact that California is also a major pistachio producer.
The solution is to find something a little neutral and bland (no pun intended) to say instead. Preparing live lobsters was an issue that triggered a long discussion with the translator with whom I was sharing a project. After research showing that crustaceans feel pain, Switzerland passed a law outlawing the boiling of live lobsters. How long will it be before other countries implement similar legislation? We do try to keep in mind the shelf life (again, no pun intended) of the recipes. Awareness of sustainability may not be as pronounced here as in the countries where the book is to be sold, so for seafood, for example, we may add a note advising the cook to check that certain fish, eels, or whatever, may be used responsibly.
Pre-#MeToo, I gave a workshop to students working on the translation of a compilation of recipes from community gardens in Paris. A recipe for nettle soup was preceded by a short text on the long legs of a gardener wearing an attractive mini skirt. I asked the class what their reactions were. After some thought, the mainly women students said they found it perfectly acceptable, and a good reflection of the French way of life. The book was to be marketed to tourists in Paris and community gardens in large US cities. The dual-nationality American professor, who hadn’t really noticed this previously, was outraged and said, “Censor it!” I think it was her opinion that ultimately prevailed.
AB: How do you deal with dishes that are well-known in France but possibly unknown to English-speaking readers?
CAM: When I have to translate a recipe for a little-known regional specialty, I usually ask if I can include a short history or explanation of the dish. I enjoy the extra research and if there is room, certain editors are happy to have a little bonus.
Again, as the world becomes more and more foody, fewer explanations will become necessary. Some ten or fifteen years ago, we would have to explain that macarons are not the same as macaroons! Now, macaron doesn’t even require italics. Kouign amman seems to have emigrated from its native Brittany and hit the US, or at least parts of it.
Amusingly, I sometimes also have to deal with the reverse phenomenon. French chefs like to “frenchify” typically Anglo-Saxon recipes. I’m thinking of apple pie and cheesecake in particular, which they often explain to their French readers. The texts for these usually need complete rewriting and so I’ll draft a suggestion for the editor. It’s an opportunity for me to add a little culinary history or fun fact, though not every editor is receptive to this type of adaptation.
|Carmella's bookshelf of cook books||Andrea's bookshelf of cook books|
Blog Editor's note: British spelling has been used in this interview.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.