Don’t Miss Great Foods Because of Bad Translations

A little background. I came to Vietnam with some trepidation. I don’t like hot climates, hot weather or most foods that they produce. I came to meet my special person though I had an open mind. In the early days, I made the mistake of saying I didn’t particularly like “Hot Pot” as Lãu is translated in English (and my spelling here is not 100% correct, as I can’t find the correct accent for the “a”.

Vietnamese Lẩu. This a fish version that both Trinh and I prefer

A very bad translation at that. I, of all people, should have known better.

Having spent the last 40 years in and out of Europe, if I venture into a place that even has a menu in English, I always ask for the native language, be it Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch or German. Why? Because generally, the translator is trying to put the food into a familiar concept, when no such comparison exists. Sometimes even the literal translation misses the mark widely.

One time in Wissembourg, an ancient French town along the French-German border, after a typically simple, but exquisite French dinner, the dessert offered was “frozen omelet”. We passed, but on walking out, we realized what they were offering was Baked Alaska, (whipped egg whites surrounding a block of ice cream that is browned in the oven) one of my favorite desserts.

The recent home of the fish before he made it to the pot.
The restaurant will grill the half the fish, with the other half going into the Lẩu

Fast forward 40 years later and my ill-informed comment about Hot Pot, had me missing a Vietnamese specialty for months until the confusion was cleared up. But why such confusion in the first place?

Because the Natives are trying to put it into a context we understand. The problem is that there are 500+ Chinese who also have a thing that’s called “Hot Pot” in English, which is totally different that the Vietnamese version. Even the Koreans have a version, which they call Shabu Shabu, which in my mind is better way to handle different foods that don’t translate well.  If I go to a Korean restaurant and see Shabu Shabu, I know exactly what I am getting. When I see “Hot Pot” the only thing I am sure of is that a pot is involved, and it will be hot.

Even the Google Translation of Lãu leaves a lot to be desired. Their definition, “a casserole of meat and vegetables, typically with a covering of sliced potato”.

The grilled portion of the fish

Who came up with that definition? A twenty something person who read about ancient life in the Midwest?



Author: Richard on Dauntless

I’m an eclectic person, who grew up in New York, lived overseas for many years and have a boat, Dauntless, a 42 foot Kadey Krogen trawler yacht. Dauntless enables me to not only live in many different parts of the world, but to do it in a way that is interesting, affordable, with the added spice of a challenge. Dauntless also allows me to be in touch with nature. As the boat glides through the ocean, you have a sense of being part of a living organism. When dolphins come to frolic, they stay longer if you are out there talking to them, watching them. Birds come by, sometimes looking for a handout; sometimes grateful to find a respite from their long journey. I grew up on the New York waterfront, in the West Village, when everything west of Hudson St. was related to shipping and cargo from around the world. For a kid, it was an exciting place of warehouses, trucks, and working boats of all kinds: tugs and the barges and ships, cargo and passenger, they were pushing around. My father was an electrical engineer, my mother an intellectual, I fell in between. I have always been attracted to Earth’s natural processes, the physical sciences. I was in 8th grade when I decided to be a Meteorologist. After my career in meteorology, my natural interest in earth sciences: geology, astronomy, geography, earth history, made it a natural for me to become a science teacher in New York City, when I moved back to the Big Apple. Teaching led to becoming a high school principal to have the power to truly help kids learn and to be successful not only in school but in life. Dauntless is in western Europe now. In May and June, I will be wrapping up the last two years in northern Europe, heading south to spend the rest of the year in Spain & Portugal. Long term, I’m planning on returning to North American in the fall of 2017 and from there continuing to head west until we’re in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea, where we will settle for a bit. But now, my future lies not in NY or even Europe, but back to the water, where at night, when the winds die down, there is no noise, only the silence of the universe. I feel like I am at home, finally.

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