Translating Wine: Part Two

Category: Culture, Translation Services

Every industry has its own unique culture, complete with an insider lingo and a clear definition of who the elites are. In the world of wine, the elites are the French. Look no further than the Napa Valley for proof of this. American wineries pay homage to the French all the time by adding words such as château or clos to their estate names (i.e. Château Saint Jean, Clos du Bois), or creating new labels with famous French expressions (Ménage à Trois, Vérité, Amuse Bouche Winery). The most popular grapes bear French names: Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Chardonnay (which is actually the name of a village in Southern Burgundy where the grape was first planted). French wines are associated with quality, tradition, breeding and good taste.

And because the French have historically dominated the international wine scene, “winespeak” is often derived from French. For example: it is common to hear words such as en primeur, cru, remuage or caudalie roll off the tongue of English-speaking wine tasters. Such high-class Franglais can seem a bit cheeky but it’s not frowned upon in wine culture – after all, any savvy wine aficionado should know a little French. So how does this particular industry jargon affect wine translation?

As with most translation, it’s all about the target audience. For French-to-English wine translation, the target audience is an English-speaking demographic that is receptive to the subtle qualitative messages French terms convey.

Let’s revisit the tasting notes from our first blog post and take a stab at adapting them for this particular audience. In French, we have:

Un vin blanc subtil et souple, aux arômes de pâte d’amande et de brioche. La bouche est ample avec des nuances de coing confit et des groseilles, se culminant en une finale qui est fraîche et persistante.

A literal translation would be:

A subtle and supple white wine with aromas of almond paste and French breakfast bread. The mouth is broad with nuances of candied quince and gooseberries that culminate in a long and refreshing finale.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish the essential from the non-essential in this text. Essential items include concrete flavors and smells. Non-essential items are the words that frame them. While we need to maintain the essential flavors from the original text, with our particular target audience in mind, a more meaningful and sumptuous rendering could involve leaving some of them in French, even if they are not completely understood:

A subtle and supple white wine with notes of pâte d’amande and brioche. On the palate, the wine is broad with hints of sweet quince and gooseberries that culminate in a long and refreshing finale.

Why could this version be seen as an improvement? For starters, almond paste and French breakfast bread don’t sound very appetizing. If you read that description on a shelf talker in the supermarket, you are likely to move on to the next bottle of wine. Good wine marketing must whet the appetite.

Secondly, as we learned previously, seasoned wine drinkers are accustomed to the occasional French expression and often associate it with caché. Better an authentic description of the wine with a slight foreign resonance than an unappetizing or inaccurate rendition.

You’ll note that the non-essential items such as “aromas” and “candied” were adapted as “notes” and “sweet” in the second, less literal translation. Since these words’ main function is to support the underlying flavor profile, there is room to finesse them.

The text still has to make sense grammatically, of course. In this example we translated “la bouche est ample” or “the mouth is broad” by “on the palate the wine is broad”. This is important for a correct reading of the phrase, because “The mouth is broad” is a bit ambiguous. Whose mouth? The taster’s? In English, wine doesn’t have a mouth. It has a “mouthfeel”, but never a mouth.

So to summarize, translating wine successfully involves:

  • Determining the right target audience
  • Sprinkling your text with some of the original language “flavors” when appropriate
  • Distinguishing between treatment of essential (scientific) and non-essential items
  • Removing awkward grammatical expressions through transcreation

Follow these tips and you will be on your way to a universally good glass of wine. Cheers!

Photo attribution: FrenchHope