“The thing about translation is that something is always added, and something is always taken away.” So said the great documentarian Liz Miller, when talking about the ways that screen-based media operate. Translation is not transparent; it transforms.

My ex-partner and I used to have a great time talking about differences and similarities in the senses of various words and expressions across French and English. (Actually, this is probably not quite true: I used to have a great time doing so; can’t be so sure about his feelings on the experience.) Sometimes Spanish and Italian used to creep into the discussion. Scrabble games were a lot of fun, needless to say. Some of the most intriguing stuff was about the variability between continental French and québécois French. They’re pretty similar, generally, but with all sorts of markers that reveal major and minor cultural evolutions. (Shoes and socks, for example, are souliers and bas, but also chaussures and chaussettes.) But even more, I’d start to get an idea of how a term might have moved through space and time, and what it might have bumped into along the way.

Conversations about translation reveal a lot about how language and meaning and usage all form part of an interactive set, each influencing and playing with the others. Most importantly, they can show that lots of things just don’t quite translate absolutely. Words and communication are never really as fixed as we might think (or want them to be…)

Bruno Latour, the French sociologist (or as he recently says, “or philosopher, or anthropologist (the label hardly matters)” [2013, p. 7]), was one who got me thinking more about translation early on. In Reassembling the Social, he unpacks translation using reflections on Michel Callon’s famous article about performative scallops. At one point in the reading, I got a bit sweaty and delirious, as can often happen with Latour. This was when he started expressing translation as a process of moving agency from one thing to another (but not just). It resonated strongly with the old physics undergrad in me, drawing forth images of billiard balls striking each other and visualizations of quantum tunneling. But it was not so simple as that—recall Frieda Stahl’s warnings about the use of physics as metaphor—and that is what makes translation so hard to, er, put into words. Nonetheless, some of these coalescences started to bring it out of its creasy, shadowy folds for me.

Latour names translation as “a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting” (2005, p. 108). In other words, it is perhaps a point of articulation, one at which both articulated actants become themselves (or better, all actants, since articulations are not necessarily just binaries). This would then make translation a multidirectional process, not a conversion of one into another. (At this point, some linguists will no doubt say: Ah yes, but in the history of languages, certain ones came first, and others followed. Fortunately, Katya would then remind us that time might be circular, in which case languages/meanings/usages/words are all eggs, chickens, and intersubjectively moot.)

Following this thread, if we probe those points at which translation occurs, it might possibly be a way to perceive the other things/networks to which the translatees are articulated, beyond the immediate scales at which we were initially observing them. Such a probe might reveal motivations of the translators, histories of social practice, the dark hands of diplomats, and the inky tools of inscription. Like Haraway and Barad suggest with their notion of diffractive analysis, looking at moments when seemingly similar/parallel/equivalent things interfere with each other can be a way of tracing the history of differences by which those things came about. Translation is a choke point, a gateway, a cultural filter—and possibly a means to look backwards (and forwards?) in time.

Back to physics: in plain-old classical mechanics, translation is movement. An object that moves through four-dimensional space is said to translate. This is lovely, I think, because of course when an object moves from one spatial location to another, it then occupies and participates in that new environment. It both leaves one ecology to become part of another, while also showing that those ecologies are not (and were not) separated. They share (or have shared) the object, and the object becomes a thing (per Latour’s sense of the word), because it demonstrates that it is/was never separated from its environments, but articulated into them through the relations it has/had with them. It is translational.

(A self-check: Plain-old classical mechanics is neither plain nor old. It is around us every day and very important to everything we do. But so is the more fine-scale, quantum version of physics. Translations abound between those two frameworks, as well, but that playtime is for another day.)

So what about translation and food? What happens when a recipe, for example, translates from one place to another? What happens when the measurements within it are translated from metric to imperial measurements? What about when the recipe was at some moment translated from gesture and movement in a kitchen into words and numbers on a page? What if I opt to translate one ingredient into another, or to literally translate the names of trad-eee-shun-al dishes into another language. (Laugher would ensue, probably, as we ponder sitting down to old shoes with greenery in damp.)

At a different gastronomic scale, what about the translation of food into commodity, commodity into bundled open-market tradables, or tradables into market-collapse catalysts? Is the future of food the same as a food future? Depends on your dictionary, I suppose. Even at the ‘simpler’ level of translating a blob of cellulose, water, aromatic compounds (and various other bits and pieces) into “lettuce” or “banana” (or more graphically, into or Banana on Mozilla Firefox OS 2.5), something is both gained and lost. These movements aren’t transparent, they’re transformations.

(Notably, btw, the differences in the ways that various software platforms and standards translate certain tropes into emojis are pretty fascinating…)

For critical food studies, eco-gastronomy, culinary activism, or whatever name you have translated your practice into, attending to moments of translational friction might be useful. What is that friction revealing? As thing theorist Bill Brown has written, “we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily” (2001, p. 4). I think that translation is a kind of thing itself, and when it doesn’t quite work seamlessly, that’s when we should be paying attention.