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  • Ruth Simpson

Wine translation uncorked

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

I wrote this article for the ITI Bulletin earlier this year. See the ITI website for more information.

Wine is often thought to be the domain of the elite. There is a snobbery that persists, despite the very best PR efforts of edgy Californian estates and salt-of-the-earth Australian winemakers in ratty cargo shorts. As a result, wine translation tends to be an area people shy away from, thinking they’re not good enough or not experienced enough to take the plunge into such a premium field. And that’s a real shame, because there is so much to enjoy about the fascinating world of wines.

From cosmetics to Chablis

My own journey towards becoming a wine translator began when I moved to Chablis from Paris with a one-month-old baby in tow. I left the cosmetics business behind and began putting down roots in the vineyards of Burgundy. With a winemaker husband and living in Chablis (France), I almost had a civic duty to make wine my speciality.

I decided not to take an overly linguistic approach to learning more about translating for the wine industry. I thought it would be much more fun and effective to learn about wine along with other native English speakers working in the industry. So I went back to school. I started by signing up for a three-day course (Level 2, Intermediate) at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s head office in London. I then went on to do a week-long course (Level 3, Advanced) with a real tasting exam at the end of it. This spurred me on to eventually sign up for the Level 4 Diploma, which spanned two years and involved four week-long stints in London with back-to-back lessons, tastings, and test preparation, before a series of written and practical exams. It was a huge undertaking – especially while translating full time and with a young child to raise – but I loved every minute.

By the time I had finished my WSET Diploma, the fabulous lecturers had guided our group on its way as we learnt a dizzying amount about how vines grow, the effects of soil types on how a wine tastes, how fermentation works, how spirits are made and marketed, and most importantly how to write an authentic tasting note.

As the years went by, I grew in confidence as a taster and as a translator. Having my husband’s winery literally next door was also very useful, I could see what I had learnt actually happening before my very eyes. I positioned myself as a wine translator and began receiving work from local wineries and estates further afield. When I set up my website I had photos taken in the vineyards and cellars of my husband’s winery, which helped enormously.

It’s now become an area where I can offer training. In 2018 I ran a short session for the Wordfast conference in Cascais. It started out with a brief A to Z of how a wine is made, followed by a guide to tasting with some practical experience thrown in! I developed that into a half-day workshop for the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association, which I ran in Nantes then in Split at the METM19 conference. After the success of both those sessions I developed a day-long workshop covering how wine is made from grape to glass, practical wine translating exercises, aroma identification exercises and a guided tasting of three different wines and I ran that event for ITI in Milton Keynes last February, right before lockdown began.

Like the sound of wine translation? Here’s what I recommend if you’re thinking of moving into this field:

Gen up on your geography, history, biology and chemistry

Wine school, as I’m sure you can guess, really is much more enjoyable than regular school; but some of the things you learned there will be invaluable too. It’s amazing how useful your Year 8 knowledge of V-shaped valleys can be when translating vineyard descriptions.

History is important too, so make sure you’re using ‘19th century’ rather than ‘XIX century’, which is sometimes seen in translations from French and I’d say is far from idiomatic in this context. Place names or parcel names need checking, mostly they’re left in the source language (and if you’re translating from French and don’t forget to include Les if it’s part of the name).

And although your science teacher probably didn’t ferment grape juice into wine during chemistry lessons, there is some benefit in knowing exactly how fermentation works. I once called out a client because they said that after it had finished fermenting, the jus (juice) was then fined and filtered. When juice has finished fermenting it is wine, so the word vin (wine) should have been used instead. He went back and changed the French and was grateful that I had picked up on the error!

Get out of the house

There’s nothing like visiting an authentic, working vineyard and these days there are quite a few in the UK. Admittedly if you’re in Sussex it’s slightly easier to visit an estate than if you’re in Humberside, but there is no need to go abroad to see how quality wine is made.

If you can get first-hand insight into what really goes on in the vineyards and cellars it shines through in your writing. Knowing how winemakers actually talk and what terms they use gives an authenticity to your compositions that just wouldn’t be possible by relying only on glossaries. For example, grapes don’t mature, they ‘ripen’, whereas when a wine is stored in an oak barrel to benefit from its aromas, or simply left alone in a stainless-steel tank, we say it ‘matures’ or ‘ages’. ‘Terroir’ is another word that need hold no fear. It’s used throughout the wine world to describe not only the soil in which a vine grows, but the vineyard’s exposure and general environment as well.

Obviously this year all wine events have been postponed or cancelled, but attending a wine fair is also great way to taste a huge range of offerings from all different countries without breaking the bank or having to travel very far. The London Wine Fair is one of the world’s most highly respected wine events, alongside Vinitaly and VinExpo. These events offer tastings, seminars and masterclasses that are often included in the price of the ticket or can be booked for a small fee. I remember learning a huge amount about Australian Shiraz during a presentation and tasting class given by Sue Hodder from Wynns Coonawarra Estate and being blown away by the impact of the terroir on the different wines in that part of the world. Terroir variation isn’t just a Burgundy phenomenon!

Don’t forget to drink

You can only write believably about a wine’s aromas and flavours if you can imagine how they taste. Acidity descriptors are often challenging, because a wine that is vif in French can be ‘lively’ in English, but one that is nerveux in French certainly wouldn’t be described as ‘nervous’ in English! (I’d suggest ‘refreshing’ or ‘zesty’.) A great word to use to describe a wine at the other end of the acidity spectrum is ‘flabby’, which would simply be pauvre en acidité in French. If you can taste many different styles of wine, your descriptors will come to you more easily and you’ll be more believable when you create your copy in English.

And if all else fails, open a book! Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, and Jamie Goode are just a handful of authors who have produced clear and accessible guidebooks to wine from different angles. They all have websites as well that are packed with reviews and information to guide you through the world of wine. Seeing how the professionals describe wines is a great way to steer your translations in the right direction.

When I met my husband-to-be in 2002 at a party in Paris, I never thought that I would be joining him on a journey into wine, but what a wonderful journey it has been.

Key words in wine translation

Climate – what you expect for a region

Weather – what you actually get

Terroir – soil, exposure, altitude, weather

Variety – the type of grape (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc)

Varietal – a wine made from a single specified grape

Fining – adding a substance to a wine that brings together tiny particles

Filtering – removing particles from a wine

Green harvesting – removing extra grape bunches from a vine to balance leaf area and fruit weight and make sure all the grapes ripen properly

Pumping over – a winery technique used to enhance extraction of aromas. The fermenting must is pumped from the bottom of the tank to the top to keep the cap of grape skins wet

Aroma – how a wine smells

Flavour – how a wine tastes (salty/sweet/bitter/sour/umami) plus its aromas

Tannin – what creates a dryness on the gums, may be soft, grippy, astringent. Derives from the grape skin, pips and stalk, or sometimes from the wooden vessel in which the wine has been stored.

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