Unplanned post of menu translation

Instead of my planned post I’ve digressed into analyzing the menu of restaurant in San Sebastián Spain, recommended by a loyal reader, Gandarias.

I’ve been working (offline) on a series of posts comparing my experience of now nearly 500 days of learning Spanish language with my original approach of analyzing menus from Spain and deducing menu vocabulary. My purpose has been to first find source material and translate it, create a corpus of translated material, extract from that corpus “translations” (not word-by-word, but more meaningful translations) and then create a smartphone app to contain all the deduced vocabulary and food/cooking terminology for a person trying to read menus in Spain.

I had originally planned to find source material and create a corpus without learning Spanish. I felt I could accomplish my purpose without language fluency. But somehow I got convinced to learn Spanish (I’m not good at languages so this is quite a challenge for me) and so for the past year I’ve had few posts about menus and interesting items I was finding. Just having a Spanish dictionary is not very helpful for figuring out what items on a menu happen to be.

So before posting some more on this general topic I had planned to show some menu items to just present some examples of some of the issues. I’d picked a restaurant, more or less at random, in Leon and had some examples ready to go. Instead circumstances provided me a different opportunity. While reading a post of another travel blogger about San Sebastián I decided to take a hint. While I can’t actually go to the restaurant, as recommended, I did find it had a good website that also resulted in an unexpected adventure.

On most of my previous analysis of menus I have not had a human English translation, partly because I was looking at small restaurants along the Camino de Santiago. So for my initial analysis I’m dependent on Google Translate, which often botches menus as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, plus then other investigation to figure out items.

In a few of the larger cities restaurants sometimes do have English translation and this provides some extra calibration. When one is trying to build a corpus it is inevitable some errors creep in, but the quality of the final consensus view of translating menu items is enhanced by having as much raw material as possible, so human English translations really supplement the guesses, I and Google, are making in our translations.

So Restaurante Gandarias has both Spanish and English, as well as Euskara, the Basque language given this restaurant is in the heart of Basque Country. It is also a very popular resort and thus likely to attract many clients who will appreciate the English version. And even in the Spanish menu some items still use the Euskara terms.

Now a note about “menu”. In most restaurants that’s what a diner gets, but in Spain it is common that there are designed menú, that is several courses chosen by the restaurant and combined as a single order, also as prix fixe to use the French term. The “menu” I had originally planned to use for this post is in that category. OTOH, some restaurants (and their websites) also provide a carta, which Google translates as ‘letter’ which is nominally correct and totally correct in other circumstances (ahora escribo una carta, see I’ve learned something, did that from memory) and it can also mean card, as in cartas de juego (playing cards, as opposed to tarjeta de credito for credit card; also fun when there are so many meanings for words, both to and from Spanish). But for this restaurant carta has the meaning, from the French and sometimes found in USA, a la carte. Or basically individual items ordered separately at the diner’s choice.

For the Gandarias carta it’s divided into sections: Todas (all), Ensaladas (salads), Entrantes (starters), Pascados (fish), Carnes (meat) and Postre (desert) – and yes, I’ve had all but Entrantes in my Spanish lessons. So I selected Todas (in Spanish version) and got four webpages of pictures of food with captions as to the item. Fine, I scooped up all four pages, did some fiddling to reformat and created the first column of my typical table I use for analysis. Knowing there was English I wanted to get the Google Translate first so I did that and lined up items in a second column of those (all this will be at the end of the post).

Then in what I expected would be a routine mechanical process I switched to the English version of the website.  Since Ensalada de bogavante was the first item I didn’t even need the picture to realize that Roasted baby lamb was not the same thing. A bit more poking around and I realized while it appeared the English and Spanish menu had the same items they were in totally different orders.

AH. A challenge. Now I have to take the English description of the item and find the corresponding Spanish. Now for this item,  Lettuce and onion salad I was able to pick   Ensalada de lechuga y cebolla even without looking at the Google Translate with is exactly the same, easy-peasy.

But it wasn’t all so easy; for instance Scrambled eggs with cod matches with Revuelto de bacalao, not just because one easily remembers bacalao is cod (about as common a food term as there is in Spain, even obvious from bacalhau where I actually had it multiple times in Portugal).  But also because while  Revuelto has dictionary translations: messy, upside down, mixed up, disheveled,  untidy, nauseous, cloudy, turbulent (and more), but most usefully scrambled. I have dug through enough menus in Spain to known that scrambled (and implied to be of eggs) fits, hence scrambled eggs with cod (even though huevo is missing in the Spanish). Amusingly Google doesn’t get the implied eggs and therefore thinks it’s the cod that got scrambled so it says: Scrambled cod so if you were using your phone do you think you’d order this.

Now a few stumped me a bit more than others, but like one of those games where you match up things in columns I only had a few left and thus got my clue:  Grilled magret was the human English translation. ¿Qué?  Magret stumped my usual translation sources and Google had missed it, but in a Spanish dictionary (with Spanish definitions of Spanish words, not translation) I did find:

Filete de pechuga de pato o de ganso muy utilizado en la cocina francesa.

which I can almost translate myself but here’s the GT

Duck breast or goose fillet widely used in French cuisine.

So, in other words, it isn’t a Spanish word, but the key hint (as well, a bit, the picture) is pato, so I was able to match up with Magret de pato (I never just did searches in my text, instead trying to translate myself).

So I wanted to do a couple of more to finish my point, about some challenges of translating menus (which, btw, are NOT solved by just learning to speak Spanish):

Almejas a la marinera Clams a la marinera Fisherman´s style clams

So it helps to know, a la marinera, which one would more typically associate with Italian food, is a particular style, really, just a typical tomato sauce, EXCEPT, typically in Spain and with clams it is NOT a tomato sauce – fooled yah. Yep, the human translation of Fisherman style is real helpful, might be useful in San Francisco.

Arroz con leche casero Rice with homemade Milk Rice pudding

Google is just too literal, arroz con leche is just rice pudding so the homemade (a valid translation of casero) just applies to the desert, not the milk,

Besugo a la plancha Grilled sea bream Grilled sea bream
Bogavante a la plancha Grilled lobster Fresh lobster grilled

Both of these provide a little fun as to exactly what a la plancha means. Yes, it does, more or less means, grilled, but then think about what a la parilla means (also grilled).  Usually a la plancha (literally on a plate, or in Italian, on the iron) means just cooked on a hot steel plate, cast iron pan or ‘flattop” in a diner.  a la parilla usually means a grate over some kind of open heat, either just gas or it can be wood (a la brasa). Now being fairly good with a grill myself these are quite different and I’d want to know which it really was. Which therefore brings up another point – reading a menu is not enough so being able to speak to your waiter (if knowledgeable) or even the chef may be required to really figure out if this is the dish you want. And therefore, that’s a different reason to actually learn to speak Spanish.

Chipirones a la plancha Grilled squid Grilled squids

chipirones can be interesting because it’s only one of the words for squid, but in this case it means baby (small) squid and frequently, in Spain, battered and fried squid, or as we’d order in USA as fried calamari. BUT, in this restaurant, given the picture, that’s not what this dish is.

Now: A brief side personal digression. For a couple of years I made multiple business trips to Japan. Learning Japanese was not going to happen but worst trying to learn the written is hard. My job required me to learn how Japanese is written (not the 1945 standard Kanji, just the algorithms of typography). At the time most Japanese restaurants had displays of plastic food (rarely picture menus) with little labels in Kanji. I quickly learned, while I had no clue what the Kanji meant, how to copy them into a little notebook and chose my item from the plastic food and then show the Kanji to the waiter. It worked fine and I always got what I expected. But I have no idea if the actual menu in this restaurant (unlike the website) would have the really dumbed-down version to show the pictures.

Now a few interesting ones that being fairly fluent in Spanish or knowing much about Spanish food won’t help so much, plus these stumped Google a bit.

Changurro al horno Baked Changurro Baked spider crab

You see Google didn’t know changurro. BUT, remember we’re in Basque country, so a bit more searching is that this word is really txangurro, where the tx, even just the x is a giveaway this is the Basque word and thus the Spanish spelling of it.

Kokotxas de bacalao al Pil-Pil con almejas Cod Kokotxas al Pil-Pil with clams Cod cheeks in pil-pil sauce with clams

The unusual spelling of kokotxas is another giveaway this is the Basque word, literally, cheeks, and really one needs to know this is a particular dish unique to Basque cooking to really have a clue what this means.

And

Pantxineta Pantxineta Pantxineta

I think you get this, obviously Basque, dessert where this is as good a description as any.

Rodaballo con su refrito ligado Turbot with its tied rehash Turbot with its thickened sauté

An amusing Google translation.

Tarta “Gandarias” elaborada por Rafa Gorrotxategi “Gandarias” cake made by Rafa Gorrotxategi Pastry chef Rafa Gorrotxategi´s “Gandarias” cheesecake

Totally meaningless terms, in any language. Even the generic Spanish tarta is ambivalent exactly what this might be.

Solomillo de vaca vieja con foie al Oporto Old beef sirloin with foie gras in Porto Old cow sirloin with foie in Oporto style

So here are a couple of interesting terms that just don’t translate (at least from Spanish): foie (the French word for liver, most foodies would just know this as language independent) and Oporto (second biggest city in Spain so probably most travelers would recognize it, but is it Port or OPorto (clue, in some language O is the)). And what style is that? If I was telling you about BBQ and said “Texas” style would you know that’s brisket withOUT sauce?

Tabla de ibéricos de bellota «Joselito» Table of Iberico de bellota «Joselito» Mixed iberian “Joselito”

I’ve mentioned Iberico de bellota in many posts before and if you go to Spain you’d better know what this means as you’ll pay a seriously premium price to get some slices of ham.

Personal Note: Here in flyover Nebraska there is actually a farmer who grows very similar pigs and lets them roam, yes, among oak trees and eat some acorns. AND, there is a gourmet butcher in Fort Calhoun, CURE (just there yesterday) who makes very similar (air dried, no smoke or salt) hams from those pigs, and, yes for a really serious price. I may never had had Spanish Lomo but it’s delicious from CURE.

Callos calluses Tripes

I had to include this one because, well, one reason I want to know about menus in Spanish is there are things I choose not to eat and this is one of them. Given Google can’t translate it, I’m glad I’ve got this in my lexicon.

And just for fun

Coulant de chocolate Chocolate coulant Chocolate fondant

chocolate is the literal word in Spanish for the same word in English (and nearly the same in French) BUT it doesn’t belong to any of these languages since it’s really xocolātl, so even Spanish has plenty of loanwords. But what about coulant, which is really a French word, meaning flowing, but interesting fondant in Spanish but that’s just another French word. And there is no English word, so if you don’t know what this is, there is no point in trying to translate.

So after a long post, you’re probably ready for dessert, so how about

Crema de yogur con mango crujiente y sirope de fresa Yogurt cream with crispy mango and strawberry syrup Yoghurt cream with crispy mango and strawberry syrup

Looking at the words on menus only reveals a bit about dining. Knowing a bit more about cooking, in general and Spanish in general, helps a lot. But if a person only had one chance to go to this restaurant and wanted to get the most interesting items some discussion with, hopefully, knowledgeable, waiter is essential.

So one conclusion from all this is that the basic idea of my project, translating food, is fundamentally a failure. One can translate words, or even combinations or words, and still have little idea what a menu item is.

Translation, as it is said in math, is a necessary, but not sufficient condition.

One thought on “Unplanned post of menu translation

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