Multilingual menus in Spain

I took a detour from studyingg restaurant menus in León to San Sebastian. San Sebastian is 189 air travel miles east of León, along the Atlantic coast and near the border of France. This puts it squarely in Basque Country and its restaurant menus reflect that.

San Sebastian is also a very popular tourist resort with extensive beaches, recreational activities, luxury accommodations and dining, 728 restaurants listed with Trip Advisor. Since it is a popular tourist destination I discovered multiple restaurants there have multilingual menus. Interestingly sometimes they are just bilingual in Castellano (aka Castilian, the most common version of Spanish) and Euskara (the name of the Basque language in Basque) – not surprising due to the cultural influences.

The restaurant I’ll be discussing was interesting in that instead of alternate menus in different languages (which sometimes don’t match very well) it has all its menu items in four language, including French and English. While I’ll show some “translations” within the menu are not literally accurate at least in this kind of menu I get what a person believes is the item in different languages instead of machine translation. So this is from BODEGA DONOSTIARRA located in Donostia which is the Basque name for San Sebastian. A typical example is:

Ensalada de morros con guindilla y cebolleta

Google Translate:

Morros salad with chilli pepper and chive

from the menu

Muturren entsalada, pipermina eta tipulinarekin

Salade de museau de porc avec le piment d oquer et l ́oignon

Pork snouts salad with spring onions and local green peppers

Now sometimes having the French helps clarify the item but my project is to create a corpus of corresponding terms in English and [Castilian] Spanish so the remainder of this post will focus on interesting issues in this menu. For the item above, however, I’ll note several issues:

  1. Google has usually missed morro (in context) but does literally translate the single word (not in context) to ‘nose’. My dictionary prefers ‘snout’ (in sense of an animal part) and lists ‘nose’ only in the sense of an airplane part and lists ‘lip’ and ‘mouth’ as colloquial terms for body parts. I wonder what is in the Google corpus used to train their AI that decides morro is just morro in English which generally means ‘A round hill or point of land’ from various dictionaries so certainly its “context” is not culinary.
  2. The translation of guindilla to ‘chilli pepper’ is interesting. First the ‘chilli’ version of the word is the British not the USA spelling (chili). Second usually chile (and chili is a dish, well known to me as I was born in Texas, no beans, of course) is used in combination with pepper, so chilli is kinda doubly wrong for me. And while guindilla can be used as the generic ‘chile pepper’ it is actually a quite specific variety of pepper popular in the Basque areas also known as piparras.
  3. And thirdly cebolleta (the diminutive of cebolla (onion)) has various translations (according to as ‘scallion’ or ‘green onion’ (in USA) and ‘spring onion’ (in UK). Another bit of evidence that Google Translation AI is trained on a UK derived corpus. And, while unlikely in this menu item, cebolleta can also be ‘chive’ which any gardener knows is not the same as a scallion (which presumably is the same as spring onion).

So this is a good menu to look for some issues in translation by comparing the human and machine translations (as well as my “guessing” using various searches and lookups). So here’s how I’m analyzing the items on this menu.

Spanish (from menu) Human translation (from menu) Google translation
Ensalada Donostiarra (pulpo, boquerón, antxoas, sardinillas, bonito, guindilla) Donostiarra salad: octopus, anchovies, baby sardines, tuna and local green peppers Donostiarra salad (octopus, anchovy, antxoas, sardines, bonito, chili pepper)

There are a couple of interesting issues here:

  1. Google didn’t translate antxoas because, of course, this is the Basque spelling whereas anchoa is the more common Spanish. But there is something else going on in that boquerón also translates to anchovy, which Google got. A search for the difference between anchoa and boquerón gets a lot of opinions, none I can label as definitive but generally (and especially in this area) boquerón is probably also cured with vinegar.

    antxoas may not be the same as the generic anchoa since I did find this, “The Cantabrian anchovy or Bay of Biscay anchovy (scientific name, Engraulis encrarischolus) is one of the specialties of Basque cuisine” which could be very relevant in the context of this menu. But the human translation omits any translation of antxoas (or instead, possibly omits boquerón). So you pays your money, you take your chances.

  2. sardinillas is not in my dictionary but the Spanish for ‘sardine’ is sardina. So here it looks like the human translation is helpful in that they’re interpreting the diminutive form of sardina as ‘little’ which is appropriate. Given sardines are already little (given those packed in tins) I wonder what this really means. No clue from either translation whether these might be fresh or cured sardines which is a major distinction in Italian cuisine.
  3. Google almost always doesn’t translate bonita but sometimes does  generate the literal ‘pretty’. Trusting Wikipedia as a reference source we see that bonita is a valid English translation as it refers to a specific tuna, “The skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) is a medium-sized perciform fish in the tuna family, Scombridae. It is otherwise known as the aku, arctic bonito, mushmouth, oceanic bonito, striped tuna, or victor fish.”. The human translator choose to just call this ‘tuna’.
  4. And continuing the discussion of guindilla (from previous example) the human translation is interesting, ‘local green peppers’. Given the low heat level of the specific guindilla pepper I can see just calling it a ‘green pepper’ (not exactly what the USA reference is to a bell (or sweet) pepper) and labeling it as ‘local’ seems to distinguish it from the generic chile pepper translation. To me the padrón peppers look the most like “green peppers” but those are typically found in Galicia and so wouldn’t be “local”.

This single example does show a real challenge in “translating” menus – what really is this dish? Even the human translation would leave you guessing. And thus this shows a real limit to what any translation can do.

So let’s look at a couple more items.

Pulpo vinagreta “Salanort” Picled Octopus Octopus vinaigrette “Salanort”

Our human translator has a bit of a spelling problem with what almost certainly is supposed to be ‘pickled’ which is not really quite the same as one usually finds for vinagreta (usually a vinaigrette). But neither the human translator or Google explain what Salanort is. I’m relatively confident in what I found which is “a family business located in the fishing village of Getaria, 30 minutes from San Sebastian”. This qualifier appears several times for this restaurant and is typical of one of those terms that is a specific reference (aka brand) and has no translation BUT still may have some consequence to the customer.

Pintxo paleta ibérica Cured iberian ham pintxo Pintxo paleta ibérica

Google doesn’t translate paleta but it’s easily found in dictionaries as ‘shoulder [blade]’.  The human translation calls this ‘ham’ despite ‘ham’ having the clear Spanish jamón and usually ham comes from the rear leg of the pig, not the shoulder (however, in USA the so-called ‘picnic ham’ can come from the shoulder). And ‘cured’ is basically redundant with already saying ‘ham’. pintxo is interesting in that Google doesn’t translate this at all and pintxo is the Basque for what is called pincho in other parts of Spain (and in English as well and it is NOT tapas, the humorous scene in the movie The Way revealed). ibérica, which is literally Iberian, is not helpful, purely as a translation, but one could hardly go to Spain and not know what this means (and it’s not really a reference to Iberian Peninsula as dictionary says but instead to a particular type of pig).

And while there are numerous other smaller translation issues in this menu I’ll close with this one:

Pluma ibérica de Guijuelo  “Guijuelo” iberian pen Iberian feather  from Guijuelo

Guijuelo is most likely a reference to a municipality located in the province of Salamanca, Castile and León known for their pork. Here I believe the human had to use a dictionary for translation as pluma can be ‘pen’ but more likely ‘feather’ as Google decided. However neither of this is either correct or useful translation. It turns out this is more descriptive “The pluma is a cut from the end of the loin, and is juicier than the presa steak or the solomillo tenderloin. Pluma is fairly thin, but leaner than the ‘secreto’ skirt steak.” from online supplier La Tienda who will sell you one.


I’m continuing with other menus from San Sebastian that are multilingual including an interesting one for sushi where I might get some Spanish terms, if they exist, as translations from Japanese. The adventures continue.


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