Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sauce tortue

An interesting piece at the Times: Richard Pevear contemplates the collaborative work, with Larissa Volokhonsky, of translating War and Peace (hmm, I do want to reread that novel in this translation, I should take it with me on some trip where I can only carry one book...).

Here he discusses the challenge of rendering Tolstoy's prose both vividly and accurately:
Count Ilya Andreich Rostov, Natasha’s father, is giving a banquet in honor of General Bagration. Ordering the menu, he insists that “grebeshki” be put in the “tortue.” I assumed that tortue was French turtle soup, but what about grebeshki? The Russian word can mean either “cockscombs” or “scallops.” Which would you put in a turtle soup? I did some research into the uses of cockscombs, but with rather unappealing results. I looked at previous translations: one has “scallops” and thinks the soup is a “pie crust”; another has “cockscombs” in a “pasty”; in a third the “cockscombs” are in a “soup”; the fourth agrees about the soup but puts “croutons” in it.

Going by my own taste, I decided to put scallops in the turtle soup. This reading got as far as the first set of page proofs. Just then we met by chance, at a dinner in Paris, a woman who used to run a cooking school. We asked her which it should be. She, too, was puzzled. A few days later we received a long e-mail message from her. She had become so intrigued by our question that she went to the National Library the next day and looked up the history of the culinary use of cockscombs and scallops. She voted firmly for cockscombs and was happy to inform us that they came into fashion in higher circles precisely around the time of the Napoleonic wars. By another coincidence, I had given Larissa a copy of Alexandre Dumas’s Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine for her birthday. Leafing through it, she came upon a recipe for sauce tortue, meant to accompany turtle and prepared with cockscombs. Suddenly the whole passage made sense, because the chef replies to the old count’s order: “Three cold sauces, then?” The other translations have “three cold dishes” or “entrees,” with no relation to sauces at all. Thanks to Mme. Meunier and Dumas, we were able to make the correction in the second set of proofs.

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