Lost in translation: buying spices in a foreign language

Some loan words are friendly and can be trusted, like cynamon and pieprz.
Some cognates are friendly and can be trusted, like cynamon, oregano and pieprz.

Cumin is a key spice in one of my favorite dishes— red lentil köfte. But it’s a bit trickier to translate, unlike sol and pieprz, the Polish words for salt and pepper.

When cooking red lentils recently, I’d bought what Google Translate said cumin was in Polish: kumin. Hooray for easy to remember Polish words! I thought. Until I got home, opened the spice packet and smelled something that was not cumin at all. Darn.

I mentioned this, while cooking, to one of my flatmates, who is Polish. He immediately became convinced he could use Google Translate to solve the word mystery, again coming up with the word kumin for cumin. 

However, I’d brought some cumin from home. After smelling it, he just looked baffled. But we did agree on one thing: whatever I had bought wasn’t the same thing as cumin, which he’d never heard of.

Which led me to skipping Google Translate, and just trying out Google: and presto! Found a blog about a Czech woman buying spices in the U.S., and having the same problem as me: mixing up cumin and the spice caraway. At least I now know what I’d purchased— though I wasn’t able to find kmin rzymski for sale anywhere. Darn.

Some twisted soul decided that the Polish word for the spice “caraway” should be kumin, and that “cumin” should be called kmin rzymski. (I am not making this up.)

Look carefully: both cumin and caraway, in Polish, at the Christmas Market in Rynek.
Look carefully: both cumin and caraway, in Polish, at the Christmas Market in Rynek.

I mean, false cognates happen. For instance, the Spanish word for “pregnant” is embarazada, leading one of my students to write this sentence: “My wife is very embarrassed with twins.” There’s also the Spanish word contenta, which actually means “happy.” Or there’s the first floor/ground floor difference in US and UK English.

The lesson: pay too much attention to either false cognates or a translator, or forget about that tricky floor 0, and you’ll find yourself on the wrong floor, and neither happy nor content.

Caraway, on the left, and cumin, on the right. (Yes, they look really similar!)
Caraway (kumin) on the left, and cumin (kmin rzymski), on the right. (Yes, they look really similar!)

Words for food can become even more imprecise, and difficult to translate. Setting aside ingredients that don’t exist in other languages, like fruits and veggies we don’t have, so much of our culture is wrapped up in food, that comes through in how we talk about food. For example, I had to explain to Turkish speakers that the mixture of olive oil and juices from fresh tomatoes and cucumber doesn’t have a word in English. Not salad dressing, vegetable juice or vegetable broth— we just don’t have a word for it.

And, is there a different dried word for dried fruit, like with raisins and grapes? Is the root or the leaf of a plant a different name? What’s the exact difference between pork and ham, or pasta and noodles?

And: “What’s English for kielbasa?” my flatmate asked me.

“Kielbasa,” I replied, absently stirring my lentils, “is… kielbasa.” At that vague reply, he headed toward his laptop for the dreaded Google Translate.

“No, wait!” I said. “I mean, it’s the same word in English.” He stared at me. “You know. Like sushi. Or Facebook. It’s the same word in both.”

Moral of the story: translating words can only give you part of a meaning.

But my story has a happy ending: at the Christmas Market in Rynek, I came across a spice vendor who sold both cumin and caraway— and was happy to let me take photos of her stall. (Bonus: the fancy grocery story in the basement of Arkady has kmin rzymski as well.)

The Christmas Market in Rynek.
The Christmas Market in Rynek.

3 thoughts on “Lost in translation: buying spices in a foreign language

Add yours

  1. So glad to stumble across your blog. I made the exact mistake. I bought what I thought was cumin, confirmed by Google Translate in the supermarket (Google Translate said “kminek”, though, not “cumin”). When I put it in the Cuban picadillo tonight, it smelled entirely different – kind of minty. And it was the weirdest tasting picadillo I’d ever had. It made no sense until I read your blog. Now I know: cumin is kmin rzymski. Thanks!

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