Misconceptions and Menu Mistranslations in Spain

 In The Perks of Being a Wordplower
We’ve all seen mistranslations on menus. Maybe on the internet, maybe in real life.


One of my more recent discoveries was a deliciously redundant dish at a Spanish bar titled “anchovies with anchovies.” While it was amusing and ultimately tasty, it got me thinking.


Why are menu mistranslations such a common sight in Spain, a country with world-renowned gastronomy and a leader in international tourism?


Today we’re going to explore this question and try to find an answer to it.


Best Thing Since Sliced Bread


First of all, this article is focused on translation into English given its prominence in the tourism sector.


As I already mentioned, Spain is well known and often praised for its gastronomy. It’s an important part of the country’s cultural identity and is closely interwoven into the language. Here are a few examples of some idioms and popular sayings to prove my point:


  • Es pan comido (it’s eaten bread)
    • It’s a piece of cake, a walk in the park
  • Vete a freír espárragos (go fry asparagus)
    • Go fly a kite
  • Se venden como rosquillas (To sell like donuts)
    • To sell like hotcakes
  • Llamar al pan pan, y al vino vino (call bread bread, and wine wine)
    • Call a spade a spade
  • De higos a brevas (See below)
    • Once in a blue moon
  • Harina de otro costal (flour from another sack)
    • To be another story/matter
  • Meterse en un berenjenal (get into an eggplant field)
    • Get yourself in a fix/hot water
  • Hacer buenas migas (make good crumbs)
    • Get along well with someone
  • And pretty much anything related to milk and eggs (you could fill an entire book with them)


bad milk

Surely part of it has to do with their delicious food, but Spain is also one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. Furthermore, it has been climbing the rankings over the past few years. According to the World Tourism Organization, Spain ranked number 2 last year (2018), up from third place the year before.


To cater to this yearly influx of tourists, more and more bars and restaurants are translating their menus into English, among other languages. Smart business move.


But there’s a little problem. Despite the increase in quantity, the quality is still severely lacking. As we’ve said before, a bad translation can negatively impact your business. So why do we keep seeing them?


Let’s take a look at what’s contributing to this proliferation of internet fodder, errr … I mean, menu mistranslations.



In A Pickle


There seems to be common misconception surrounding culinary translation, in particular, menus: they’re as easy as pie.


At first glance, a menu doesn’t seem like much. There are relatively few words to translate. In addition, most common ingredients, such as lettuce, eggs, and chicken, are basic words for any language learner. Plus, they’re easily found in a dictionary.


But this apparent simplicity is misleading. And this is precisely why chefs and restaurant owners opt for easy and/or economical options. Either they turn to machine translation or ask a relative, employee or friend who knows some English to do it. What could go wrong?


Well, to be honest, a lot.


These two options are the culprits of the majority of menu mistranslations.


In previous articles we explain why neither option A nor option B are good ideas in general.


But we need to know how they pertain to mistranslations on menus.


Proof and Pudding


What most people don’t realize is that culinary translation is far more complex than it appears on the surface. Here’s why.


Let’s start with the ingredients.


cuts of meat

Beyond basic ingredients, culinary terminology quickly becomes complicated. Think about all the different cuts of meat for each type of animal. Or the vast amount of cutting, cooking, and preparation methods used across kitchens in Spain. Unfamiliarity with specific terminology is a primary reason for mistranslations. Someone who isn’t specialized in the subject matter (and both languages) is bound to make mistakes.


And then there’s the issue of ingredients or culinary concepts that are uncommon outside of Spain. Let’s go back to the “anchovies with anchovies” example from earlier. The original name of the dish in Spanish was anchoas con boquerones. Both are European anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus), so the translation is technically correct. However, it’s far too literal.


In this case, it’s important to differentiate because the names in Spanish denote the differing preparation methods. The former is prepared with salt, or cured, while the latter is marinated in vinegar, or pickled. As a result, you end up with two very distinct products.


Similarly, what can you tell me about brevas and higos? Both are figs, but I’ll let you discover the difference. It’ll help you understand the saying from before too.


Context is very important, and menus, in all their brevity, give you very little. This makes machine translation inviable, as evidenced by the menu with the anchovies. It was rife with mistranslations. My favorite was the cinta de lomo (pork loin), which came out to be spine tape. It sounds more like orthopedic supplies than food.


bacon of sky


As you can see, the necessary knowledge of food, culture, and language has quickly compounded. And it only gets more complicated from here.


Many dishes are a combination of ingredients which are not specified. The name of a dish holds a lot of information and often has cultural or linguistic ties. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the concept is widely known and can be left as is. Paella and gazpacho are prime examples.


Other times, it’s not so easy. The dish Migas doesn’t have an equivalent in English and the literal translation of crumbs is a bit misleading. It doesn’t sound very filling. In this case, an explanation or description of the dish may be in order. But descriptions can be problematic too.


The translator must have extensive knowledge of the ingredients involved and the preparation method, which may differ depending on the restaurant/chef. Creating a concise yet thoroughly descriptive explanation is a difficult balancing act; it almost never conveys all the information. And to top it all off, menu space is severely limiting.


We also need to consider that there are times when leaving the original is preferred for the sake of sounding authentic or exotic.


These are discretionary decisions that are best left to professional translators. If you trust in machine translation or someone without sufficient knowledge and experience, your menu will be sure to have mistranslations. It may end up more comedic or confusing than appetizing.


Our Cup of Tea 


We understand and respect the complexities involved in culinary translation and the added difficulties posed by menus. At Exero Soluciones, our translators are subject-matter experts with extensive knowledge of everything from regional dishes and ingredients to preparation methods and terminology. They understand the context and know when translation is required or when leaving the original term is appropriate.


Although this article focused on Spain, we’ve got a BIG appetite. With native translators from around the world, we work diligently to provide you with the most accurate and appetizing menu and culinary translations in practically any language you need. Whatever food you offering, we’ll make sure your clients understand. They may end up with their mouths watering too.


Contact us by phone or email and you’ll have accurate multilingual menus in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. 


Finally, if you’re anything like me, this article made you hungry. So dig in!


That’s all for today’s article! Leave any comments or questions below, we’d love to hear from you! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram to stay up to date on future articles.  Hasta pronto!
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