When is a cake not a cake?

You might not believe it, but I regularly arbitrate fairly ferocious arguments about cake. And it’s not because my colleagues can’t share cake (although this has been known to be a problem in the past).

The reason is that this little word, which you would think would be a simple thing to translate, actually gets people quite upset. Throughout the world, different sorts of cake prevail, and some people (understandably) get quite grumpy when you present them with the wrong type of cake. It’s important stuff.

When is a cake not a cake?One of our most recent additions to the uTalk app is Esperanto, where we had to make a very difficult decision about whether to translate the phrase ‘piece of cake’ (available in uTalk Essentials because, let’s face it, it’s essential vocab), as ‘peco da torto‘ or as ‘peco da kuko‘. For English speakers, ‘kuko’ was favoured because it is close to ‘cake’, and therefore brings to mind a big, squashy Victoria sponge. ‘Torto’, on the other hand, inevitably conjures something which is not a cake at all, but a tart – or even a flan: something flimsy and possibly, horror of horrors, covered with fruit.

Nonetheless, in the final stages of the battle, ‘peco da torto’ won, and went through to the final translation. Here’s why: our app is used all around the world by people who can learn from their own native language: we currently have 128 languages in uTalk, and people can learn any one of these from any other. For Esperanto, this is particularly important, because Esperanto is a language that nearly all Esperantists (barring a maximum of a few thousand native speakers) speak as a second language, making the Esperantist community very multinational.

So we want to make our  Esperanto translation as internationally relevant as possible. And for most Europeans, at least, ‘torto’ will bring to mind a fairly generic type of cake, whereas ‘kuko’ might be slightly less familiar. Taking just a few European languages, we’ll see that in Russian we have торт, Italian torta, Dutch taart, Spanish tarta, Croatian torta, Hungarian torta. Both options would have worked, but ‘torto’ won the more international vote, and when it comes to Esperanto that’s a pretty important factor to consider.

What do you call a cake in your language? Let us know!



1 thought on “When is a cake not a cake?”

  1. Between Dutch and French, ‘taart’ and ‘tarte’ are two false friends, not because of too much cream for aan healthy diet, but because ‘taart’ is in French ‘gâteau’, so what you would serve for an anniversary, while ‘tarte’ is flat, open and with fruits. I have once bought a ‘tarte’ for somebody who wanted a ‘taart’, and I was in big intercultutral trouble. Et régler ça, ce n’était pas de la tarte (= not easy)!


Leave a Comment