The Untranslatable Terroir

Translation Montreal Syllabus Bottle of red wine in countrysideSubjects like fitness, fashion, and—you guessed it—food can be just plain fun to translate!

For the most part, I delight in finding words to describe a dish that’ll make readers melt, but every so often I stumble on a word that seems untranslatable, like “terroir.” In certain instances, the translation is obvious: “cuisine du terroir” turns pleasantly into “local” or “regional cuisine.” But how can I convey that sense of sun, soil, and even salinity that are expressed in the term “terroir”? Or the history of the region and the winemakers themselves? The longitude, the latitude, the altitude?

Quite simply—I can’t. When it comes to fine wine and haute cuisine, often the original is best. In English, as we go upscale, we turn to French for our descriptors. Not only do they sound more enticing, they’re also more apropos. There’s no question that “foie gras” sounds more appetizing than “fatty liver” or that “crème brûlée” will make your mouth water, whereas “burnt cream” might make you pass on dessert.

Clients may be surprised to see some of their own words in the finished translation, but it’s not a mistake. I have simply concluded, after much research, that “terroir” best translates as “terroir.”

What words have you found to be untranslatable?

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