Why we need better than literal translation (or more than phones)

If you were in Spain and using a simple dictionary (or your phone, at least with Google Assistant, maybe Siri is smarter (I can’t test it)) you might end up ordering something you really don’t want. Some of you may have followed Andrew Zimmern and Bizarre Food, but I almost couldn’t watch that. Some food, which may be terrific, that people eat in other parts of the world grosses me out. That’s why I’d like to know the most accurate (and possibly detailed) translation for menu item.

So I just encountered this one, manitas de cerdo, in the category of cazuelicas (which in itself is a small mystery; hint it’s derived from cazuela) on a menu for restaurant in Puente la Riena (Navarra, right on the Camino). A quick look in the dictionary (or possibly a word you will have learned from my list since it is frequently used) shows cerdo to be pig which we may safely assume means pork even though puerco (a bit easier to guess as a cognate) is also commonly used. Fine. cazuelicas (I’m going to do a longer post on these) are small dishes which then contain the food, basically a small casserole or stew. Fine, sounds, OK, some casserole with pork.

But what about manitas? With just a dictionary (or phone, or in my case Google translate) this comes up as ‘handyman’ (or just ‘handy’ or ‘good with one’s hands’). Huh, what kind of pork preparation is somehow connected to being a handyman?

Well, with a bit more research (if you had the time to do it in a restaurant instead of quickly using my list and its app, when I get it done) you’d find this is pork trotters, as in the feet (even the hooves) of pigs. Oh yum! Andrew Zimmern might like this, an adventurous diner might relish this dining novelty in Spain, even folks from nearby Iowa which is pig raising capital of U.S. would find it familiar, but I’ll pass.

The web version of the menu I’m looking at doesn’t have any pictures so I can’t even use that to exclude choices I don’t want. This worked for me in both Japan and China, as pictures (or plastic food in Japan) was a great clue, but they’re not available in this restaurant in Spain.

Now, of course, if you’re fluent in Spanish (and didn’t have an accent that would make it impossible to be understood in this part of Spain (as some Spanish speakers from Western Hemisphere discover)) you could query the waiter about what this dish is. You wish! And if you got an answer, could you understand it if you have limited conversational Spanish? (For fun with that try understanding the scene (without subtitles) in The Way where Martin Sheen gets explanation of there being no tapas in Navarra, only pintxos which he confuses with pinchos). If you can’t discuss (or know from previous unpleasant experience) you’ll be dependent on reading the menu. Then either being too conservative (like ordering “safe” chistorra instead since I’ve already explained that one in a previous post and you know it’s edible) and then missing some interesting food you would like; or risk getting something that may be inedible for you.

But, just in case you need more persuading, from this same menu of cazuelicas we have callos (no easy guess at this) which translates (via Google) to ‘calluses’ (or ‘lime’ (as in the building material, not the fruit) according to spanishdict.com). Great not much help, neither sounds like anything I’d want to eat. But here’s the deal – like cazuelicas or salmorejo this is just the name of a generic dish (like goulash or succotash or jambalaya, or even paella from Spain you probably know as just paella in English) that has no direct translation to English (although one online dictionary gave a clue, ‘guts’), only a description. According to Wikipedia this is

Callos is a stew common across Spain, and is considered traditional to Madrid. It contains beef tripe and chickpeas , blood sausage and bell peppers. Chorizo sausage may also be used.

Now all I need to know is what the word for tripe is (some say callos, some say tripa, take your pick given callos is now going to be a circular reference (is there callos in my callos); AND how to ask the waiter if this restaurant’s version of callos used tripe (bad but fortunately easy to ask, ¿includio tripa)) or chorizo (good). [And what Nord Americano who has eaten at “Mexican” restaurants in the U.S. doesn’t know what chorizo is BUT is it the same thing in Spain? If you think so, what do you think tortilla is in Spain? I pick huevo, neither wheat or corn, por favor.]

Just in case you want to make callos for yourself (since you’re not in Puente la Reina, Navarra, where this restaurant serves it), here’s a clear online recipe (at least for the Madrid version, perhaps Navarra is different).

[added after initial post: I’m not sure I should add this (versus do a new post) since it’s my usual style of expanding posts until they’re way too long for web attention spans but I’m going to, this time, anyway]

After handling the cazuelicas part of the menu (and writing the post above) I moved on to a much safer category: HAMBURGUESAS Y SANDWICH (I suspect you don’t need the translation for this, but they might have used emparedado (instead of sandwich) just to make this a little more fun).

After just mentioning using pictures on menus to help pick a dish this webpage does that job. But there is still some fun here even on this easier set of choices (don’t do Google translate, just follow along). sencilla does translate (literally) to ‘simple’ (as Google did) and picture A (vs B, the completa burger) is pretty obvious, BUT, what’s that? Is that a beef burger or a chicken filet or even breaded pork tenderloin in A? Maybe you’d think that’s what sencilla would imply (doesn’t appear too) type of burger in the bun, not just absent the toppings. So pictures can be misleading too.  Then we have the fun part of item C, Menú Hamburguesa.  Aren’t we looking at the menú  (no, this is the carta, as in equivalent to a la carte) so menú  in this case (and others) implies either the works (or we might use ‘meal’ (as at McDonalds) or ‘basket’ (at Dairy Queen)). But what about that picture C (vs B) – looks like a lot more goodies piled on the burger than the completa (the bonus, I guess, for ordering the meal).

But a couple more tidbits to notice from this simple menu. What about that ‘reed’ (the literal of caña Google provided). Just the word, refresco, given even with the simplest knowledge of Spanish that o is or and thus a choice sounds better even without its literal translation of ‘soft drink’ (seems the most common translation).  A bit deeper in the list of meanings for caña we get something a bit more appealing:  ‘small glass of beer’, a definition that is usually used in Spain (as noted by spanishdict.com) and might not get you a small draft beer in Columbia. And finally, (without the picture or my handy-dandy guide) you might not find sandwich york y queso  too appealing unless you happen to know that york is just a typical type of ham (aka, cocido (cooked, but also translates to boiled and fired, which could refer to a ham preparation), simple and presumably cheap versus the many other types of ham in Spain which seems to adore ham (jamón)). [A nice article about Spanish ham here]

So even in a fairly tiny and simple menu, with pictures, you might still have some ambiguity on what to order. Me, I’d go with Picture C just because it looks the best.

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