Why Aren’t We Translating Food Media?

The dominance of food writing in English reinforces cultural divisions

Alicia Kennedy
Heated
Published in
7 min readJun 29, 2020

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Half an avocado with seed sits between two miniature translation dictionaries
Photo: Chris Koeck/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This was first posted as the June 29 newsletter, “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.” You can sign up here.

Before I was a food writer, before I ever thought about being a food writer, I was attempting a life of literary criticism — almost exclusively done for free — focused on literature in translation. I interviewed translators like Rosalie Knecht for The Awl, who worked with the Argentine César Aira; I asked Natasha Wimmer, best known for translating Roberto Bolaño’s major texts, how it felt to be known for bringing the work of “great men” into English. This fascination was inspired by the simple knowledge that there were whole other literatures out there happening, but I couldn’t access them: the great existential question of Who would I be without Kafka?

It helped that in the late aughts, thanks to interest in the work of people like Bolaño, translation was a big topic of conversation. The statistic, consistently cited, is that only 3 percent of the world’s literature is translated into English, which is the globe’s most dominant language for reasons of empire, politics, and business. Back in 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, told The Associated Press, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. …That ignorance is restraining.” And isn’t it?

Prior to that, in 2007, PEN put out a report titled, To Be Translated or Not To Be, for which Esther Allen wrote the piece, “Translation, Globalization, and English,” in which she says:

Linguistic plurality is an essential component of this idea of literature. Literary scholars notoriously find it difficult to agree, but if there is one point on which they do converge it is the crucial importance to literature of traffic among different languages.

As perhaps you can imagine, ever since I started writing about food, I’ve wondered why translation hasn’t been a component of its media — not even 3 percent of it. It’s obviously a matter of resources, but it is first and foremost a matter of believing that what is produced in the United States doesn’t need to…

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Alicia Kennedy
Heated

I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues: aliciakennedy.substack.com