An example of challenge in translation

In my past efforts and this v3.0 I quickly run into a lot of challenges for translating certain words found in restaurants offerings, largely because I couldn’t (at least with a few minutes of effort) find any clearcut notion of what a particular word means. One such I’ve now hit several times is gulas.  The online dictionaries I use agree with Google’s literal translation: gluttony. That word simply doesn’t fit in any of the menu listings I’ve found.

But searches for that alone yield several recipes (receta) and mentions. The frequent reference is to small eels, but it really doesn’t seem this are actual eels. Now here’s the challenge to a non-Spanish speaker, non-Spaniard  – a single reference (at least that the first couple of pages of search results that yield:

The gulas is a substitute of the eel and that is made with surimi. The surimi, which in Japanese means “pressed fish muscle”, is made with various parts of fish (usually pollack) that are cleaned and washed and then pressed and create the gluttony. It has a high nutritional value and low cholesterol.

at this webpage.

Should I believe this? (with so little quantity of data?) The few tidbits and clues I get might indicate gulas has some overlap with umami, i.e. a savory taste sensation, which also has no English translation but is gradually falling into common use by U.S. foodies just as umami (not exactly same as ‘savory’). Is is possible gula (as literally defined as gluttony) is the same thing?

So as clever as I might think I am about solving puzzle in a language I don’t know there are limits and this is clearly one of them. I have some hints but nothing decisive. So how would I ever resolve this and get a firm definition of this word? And if I can’t do it with a considerable amount of searching, how would you ever interpret this term on menu when you have just minutes to decide and order?

It makes one wonder how much one can really learn about the cuisine of a different country wrapped in vocabulary that is difficult, maybe even impossible, to definitively translate.

Now I just found another clue. There are frequent mentions of angulas (baby eels) and this is an interesting clue.

For those who want to taste angulas without spending a small fortune, mock angulas made of Pollock fish are available in jars or cans (111 gr/4 oz) in stores Spain for a fraction of the cost. These mock eels are generally referred to as gulas.

This shows the value of persistence in searching and trying to solve the mystery (clearly the restaurant knows what gulas are, but it’s me trying to decipher this. Again if I were fluent in Spanish (or a native knowledgeable about cuisine) it might be easy, but for anyone else, how do we get a valid translation. For a casual traveler (non-foodie, non-fluent Spanish speaker, i.e. typical pilgrim on the Camino) how would we know what this one word (and many others like it) actually means.

Once when I was in Japan on business the person (U.S. citizen from Hong Kong) was assisting us navigating Japanese customs, especially food. He made us a deal – we had to first try some food before he’d tell us what it was since knowing what it was might deter us from trying. I remember following his requirement and trying to chew through some real rubber bands (completely transparent) and then earning the right for him to tell me this was jellyfish. Oh boy, not sure I needed that. But, OTOH, chowing down on yakitori turned out to be tasty.

So the intrepid traveler might just order the items on the menu that the can NOT determine what they are, in order to get the surprise (and possibly exciting discovery) of another culture. Good luck with that. I’m a bit adventurous but not that much. In Portugal, on recommendation from our lodging hosts, we tried leitão and it was a wonderful experience (not just the pig, but the whole restaurant and sides). So I recognize that sometimes knowing too much about translating menus may inhibit one from trying something that turns out to be a great experience, but meanwhile I can do without a whole lot of the food I see in photos (of tourist) along the Camino. So balance is the real goal.


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