Translation or localisation or what?


Just imagine: it’s Friday night, a couple of friends have just turned up unexpectedly for dinner, armed with two bottles of wine, one red, one white, from the same winemaker. Delighted, you have a look at the notes on the bottle of red wine to have an idea what it’s like and what to cook to go with it, when disaster strikes. The notes are in French and English and completely contradict each other!

English note: A smooth Merlot that perfectly combines plummy, herby flavours with smoky cedar wood. A fruity wine with a full well-structured texture and soft tannins.

A great match to lightly spiced red meats and mature cheeses.

French note: Un Merlot qui combine parfaitement prunes et mûres noires, avec des notes fumées d’herbe et de graphite. Un vin fruité, à la texture riche qui tapisse le palais, bien structuré et avec des tanins soyeux.

À déguster avec des pâtes, des plats à base de poulet, du jambon, un risotto, des fromages légers et des mets mexicains.

My bad translation (I’m not a specialist!): A Merlot that perfectly combines plum and black mulberry flavours with smoky herbs and graphite. A fruity wine with a full well-structured texture and soft tannins.

To eat with pasta, chicken dishes, ham, risotto, light cheeses and Mexican dishes.

How confusing is that? A translation tragedy if ever I saw one. What am I supposed to cook?

But that’s not all. I read the notes on the white wine, and this is what they say:

English note: A crisp Chardonnay packed with tropical fruit flavours and subtle hints of vanilla. Medium bodied with good balance and a fresh finish.

Great with fish and seafood and creamy pasta dishes.

French note: Un Chardonnay aux notes fruitées de papaye et de pêche, avec des touches de vanille et de noisettes grillées. Avec une belle struture complexe et savoureux, il s’agit d’un vin équilibré avec une finale fraîche.

S’accorde avec les fruits de mer cuits et les poissons tels que le saumon, le maigre et le congre, ainsi qu’avec les pâtes avec une sauce blanche.

My bad translation: A fruity Chardonnay with papaya and peach flavours and hints of vanilla and grilled hazelnuts. Medium bodied, full of flavour, with good balance and a fresh finish.

To eat with cooked seafood and fish such as salmon, meagre and conger, as well as creamy pasta dishes.

A slightly more accurate translation, but still with marked differences. This consistency in delivering conflicting advice according to the different languages puzzles me. Whereas the first example could be explained by a simple mistake made by the people in charge of producing the labels, the fact that both labels contain some odd translation choices makes me wonder whether they might be not straight-forward translations, but localised texts. In other words, the wine makers aren’t providing an unbiased assessment of the wine, but rather adapting their description to the taste buds they wish to attract. Do the French and the English expect different things from wine (this is assuming that the wine is marketed only in France and England)? But then, tastes and expectations can’t be that different that one nationality will detect "grilled hazelnuts" in a wine, but not the other.

So I’m very perplexed. I know there are a couple of wine lovers who read this blog on a fairly regular basis, including a translator specialised in oenology, and I would love to hear what they think about this.

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:49+00:00 July 15th, 2007|Freelance Translation|13 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Daniel Hinge July 17, 2007 at 9:16 am

    I would ring for an Indian takeaway.

  2. céline July 17, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Very wise. Not so much fuss with good old lager.

  3. Stuart Mudie July 17, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I’m not sure what to make of this.
    It’s something I’ve noticed myself on wine labels in the UK and to a lesser extent in France, but I’ve never been asked as a translator of wine-related texts to produce anything other than a faithful rendition of the original text.
    Having said that, it does seem to be true, in my experience, that different nationalities tend to use some expressions more than others when it comes to describing wines.
    Quite why this should be, I couldn’t say, and I probably wouldn’t even have commented on this post if you hadn’t pointed me out directly, Céline 🙂
    Maybe the best bet, if you don’t go for the lager option, is the open all the bottles and judge for yourself.

  4. Audrey July 17, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Very puzzling indeed. It seems hard to tell which one is the source text. Neither of them reads well.

  5. Jean July 18, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Very odd and frustrating! I think this points to something often evident to translators and to anyone who pays detailed attention to words: that much of the verbiage thrust at us daily from every surface is intended as a mixture of persuasive packaging and soothing or distracting noise, not as detailed, much less reliable, information.

  6. céline July 18, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Jean, I couldn’t have put it better.

  7. James July 20, 2007 at 1:59 am

    it was interesting that the other day I was teased by a chilean friend for the wine I had sittling on the counter (it was actually a fairly cheap syrah which I had used mostly in cooking). He tried it and said it was alright but the sort of wine that gringos liked. fruity and lacking in complexity. Well I actually like the same sort of wines as chileans, but there do seem to be certain buttons that work for different groups of people…

  8. céline July 20, 2007 at 9:07 am

    I remember a recent dinner with French and English clients, where the choice of wine was a Bordeaux or a Bourgogne. Interestingly, the French were clearly divided into Bordeaux and Bourgogne lovers, and were very disparaging towards the other wine. The dinner almost degenerated into a fistfight between the two camps. The English were absolutely bemused. Mucho fun!

  9. Enigmatic Mermaid July 21, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Dear Céline
    In my opinion, no translator in his/her right mind would have used this kind of latitude in translating the text.
    We, translators, only feel safe if we never stray too much from the original. Changing an adjective or adverb, that is okay, we like to tinker here and there to leave our mark, but calling peaches and papaya tropical fruit (a bit of a stretch) or making up our own meal harmonization suggestions, no way jose, it’s too risky.
    Surely, this is the marketing guy speaking or the ad agency adapting the text to suit the needs of different markets. I know that you guys in the EU live in a perfect world of high standards and respect to the consumer, but for a Brazilian it seems a little naive that anyone would think that a text stamped on a wine bottle has any other purpose than selling as many bottles as possible.
    Going back to the translator latitude issue…
    Once I was involved in a translation project of product claims for a veterinary drug to be introduced in the Brazilian market.
    In one of those ‘back to ya’ steps, I received a version of the file where the content had been changed by the editor in such depth and breadth that I couldn’t help asking my PM if the editor had this degree of freedom. I just wanted to check, really, because nothing was farther from my mind than changing a single word because the editor’s version was evidently so superior to mine.
    As it turned out, it was the pharmaceutical company that had changed the statements mid-way between my translation and the editor’s review.

  10. céline July 21, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Enig, I too am loathe to stray TOO far from the source document, as faithfulness is absolutely paramount in translation, and that’s why I was mildly horrified, from a professional point of view, by the labels. But if you’re right, and I think you probably are, who would trust a winemaker who so clearly intends to manipulate rather than inform the consumer? Surely that’s a bad marketing strategy which is sure to backfire. And yes, I’m very naive.

  11. language hat July 26, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    “I know that you guys in the EU live in a perfect world of high standards and respect to the consumer, but for a Brazilian it seems a little naive that anyone would think that a text stamped on a wine bottle has any other purpose than selling as many bottles as possible.”
    For an American too. It would never occur to me to look at this as a translation issue; I just assume, when I read those texts, that they’re crafted by marketers to appeal to the language-specific market. Americans love the word “fruity” as applied to their wine, so it appears on virtually all wine labels.
    (Hi, Merm! How come you never visit any more? I miss you!)

  12. Valerie July 29, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    A late note on the translation of “pates avec une sauce blanche”, which comes from the Italian concept of “sugo bianco” (=sauce blanche), as opposed to “sugo rosso” (=sauce rouge; red sauce) which means with tomato. “Une sauce blanche” is simply a sauce with no tomato. I’ve got many recipes to illustrate the concept, if you’re interested…
    All the best from sunny, warm Italy,

  13. céline July 30, 2007 at 8:10 am

    Hi Valerie, I thought a "sauce blanche" meant a creamy sauce (hmmmmm… cream…), not just an absence of tomato, is that right?
    All the best from England, where flood waters are receding and Spring might finally be arriving. But we don’t mind, we have tea. And stiff upper lips. Mustn’t grumble and all that.

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