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Mince Pies at Christmas

What’s in a Mince Pie?

In England, and many parts of the English-speaking world, mince pies are a typical Christmas food. They are sweet pies made of “mincemeat”, which is a mixture of dried fruit and nuts, apple and spices, with suet or vegetable oil and sugar or syrup. Notice that mincemeat contains no meat, at least in its modern version. It seems that historically — as mincemeat goes back to the Middle Ages — fruit and nuts were often added to left-over meat and offal. However, by the 19th century the meat had disappeared from the recipe. It’s also worth remembering that in Old English, “meat” simply meant “food” (with the modern meaning of “meat” being rendered by “flesh”). So “mincemeat” was actually just “minced food”. “Minced”, meaning “cut up very fine”, is cognate with words like minute, minor, diminish and even menu.

In modern English, we make a distinction between “mincemeat” (as in mince pies) and “minced meat” (as in hamburgers which are originally from Hamburg and nothing at all to do with “ham”… but that’s another story!). However, we refer to both, confusingly, as “mince”. Americans prefer to call minced meat “ground meat”; where “ground” is the past participle of “grind” and nothing to do with the noun “ground”.

Some days ago I watched a Spanish television programme about English Christmas food. The translator had understood “mincemeat” to be minced meat — “carne picada” — and “mince pies” to be “meat pies”, or “pasteles de carne”. The recipe was unusual, to say the least, and the original text included “These probably don’t look like the mince pies you are used to”. The Spanish of course came out as “These probably don’t look like the meat pies you are used to”. Indeed!

Mince Pies and Cultural Translation

This is a nice example of a fundamental problem with translation. Should you use a native speaker of the source language or the target language? The orthodox reply is that you should always use a native of the target language. But this often leads to misunderstandings of the source text. Translating something into grammatical correct prose, but with the wrong meaning, is usually opaque or invisible to the reader or listener. Whereas an accurate but stylistically poor translation, such as you might get from a native of the source language, is very obvious and gives an impression of low quality. But in many contexts accuracy is actually a lot more important than style; in technical documentation for instance.

Ideally, a target-language speaker should make the initial translation; which should be then carefully checked for accuracy by a bilingual source-language speaker. Sometimes it works best the other way round. In QuickSilver we quite often do draft translations from our native language and then get a native speaker of the target language to fix any issues of style and terminology. Sometimes we use translators who live in the country of their source language, e.g. an Italian living in the UK. This has the clear advantage that the translator probably has better knowledge of the local culture, but the translation may then not be quite up to date with the latest tendencies back in the home country.

The conclusion of all of this is that (1) translation is first and foremost a cultural activity, albeit one which requires considerable linguistic knowledge and experience, and (2), that mince pies are delicious!

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