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How NOT to translate a Menu

By Mr Grumpy - Fri 25th Feb 2011

The other week I offered to help a Spanish friend out who had managed to pick up a bit of work translating a menu at a local Spanish restaurant. She was fluent in English, but just needed a bit of help of anglicising the exact name of some of the dishes on the menu, and given that I have an annoying habit of reading cookery books (but not actually cooking anything from them), I was volunteered into helping.

The restaurant was a typically Spanish, traditional home cooking kind of place, and has finally decided to move with the times and offer it's menu in English and German. The Germans had a head start of two weeks on us and still hadn't submitted their menu, he told us, throwing down the gauntlet.

Although we didn't tell him as much, we decided that the British effort wouldn't let the side down, and was something we could knock out over a couple of bottles of wine.

It was at this point that it dawned on me that some words just don't translate, and look odd written down when you do try and translate them. Worse still - especially where food is concerned - they just don't sound appetising at all, even if their original translation in Spanish does.

How would you translate 'Muntadito' ? - 'Small sandwich' just seemed reminiscent of food on offer at a kids birthday party. 'Hor's d'oevre' seemed pointless (and why translate from Spanish to French for the English clientele). We ended up with something along the lines of 'Tiny tapas portion on top of toast' (yum...)

How would you translate 'Paella'? our thoughts were either Risotto, gado-gado, Biryani etc... but again it involved introducing a third language, and this would just make things complicated.

...Especially when there were about a dozen different types of Rice dishes on the menu : Arroz abanda; Arroz al Horno; Arroz con costra; Arroz Negra; Arroz Melosa; Arroz Cubana... How could all these dishes be translated - A) In order to set them apart from each other, and B) To make them seem more appetising and Interesting than by simply listing the Ingredients (and in many cases the Ingredients were the same anyway, just the preparation different).

The fish and meat dishes were a walk in the park.

And then came dessert. I'm not the biggest of dessert eaters, but the whole exercise convinced me that there one big conspiracy between Spanish chefs to try to convince people that there is more than one Spanish pudding. There isn't - there is only one, but these chefs have cunningly given the same dessert a number of different names.

Let me give you an example :

Natillas : That one's easy - it's custard. Just put down 'custard'. Oh, hang on - a British person might expect that to be served warm and with with a bit of sponge or something. Let's make that 'A vanilla flavoured egg pudding, served cold'. That will do nicely - we can come back to it for a rethink when we've done.

Flan : Erm, well we've got to make it clear that it's not 'flan' as a Brit would know it... shall we just put 'Custard'?.... Hang on, scratch that ...'A set custard, served cold'? (Or can we just put 'a non-runny version of above'?), no let's leave it at that for now.

Creme Brulee : Erm... Isn't that a French word anyway ? If the Spanish can't be bothered to translate it why should we ? Ok. I'll try ... 'a semi-runny egg custard with a caramel top' - will that do ?

Creme Catalan : Are you being serious now, 'cos I ain't laughing ? - Ok, I'll give it my best shot... 'a quite runny egg custard with a crunchy brown top'.

Pan de Calatrava : Oh for the love of God, is this some kind of sick joke ? Ok, a 'custard and bread based cake'...

How many different ways can somebody eat a bloody egg for pudding !

It is only after living here in Spain for god knows how many years, that I suppose you start to see through the translation on a Menu. If you did translate the dish literally you more than likely wouldn't order it, or even try it, but I suppose that's true for many countries aswell. I tried to argue the case for asking the restaurant owner to let certain dishes stand without a translation - Was a translation for 'Paella' really necessary ? How many Brits that were prepared to travel to Spain on their holidays and venture beyond dining in their Hotel would NOT know what a Paella is ? - same with 'Creme Caramel' ... lesser so with 'Muntaditos', I suppose, but many would either work it out for themselves or be prepared to take a risk.

Anything, as long as the restaurateur didn't opt for having those faded luminous menu's from the 1980's specially for the tourists with the pictures of Sausage and chips on the front.

Comment on this Blog

Spanish is my favourite cuisine, but I have to admit that I agree with every word !
Archie Peterson - Sat, 15th Sep 2012
Uh-oh. Now you're picking a fight. I have to concur with my Valencian compatriots. It is _very_ important not to "stir the pot" when making paella! Though as they've demonstrated, it is perfectly alright to stir the pot while you eat it.
An Expat In Spain - Wed, 30th Nov 2011
I have changed my mind about Rice dishes after dining with Valenican friends the other day : They complained that because the `Paella´ had been stirred that it was in fact `rice & chicken´and NOT Paella. Another complained that it was too wet to be Paella and was therefore a `Melosso´. They were lucky not be wearing it, I can tell you...
Mr Grumpy - Wed, 30th Nov 2011
You two (Mr Grumpy and Alcalaína) have me in stitches! If this place used the word "Creme" (French) instead of "Crema" (the Catalan or Spanish word), then it is clearly aiming for something more international than Spanish cuisine. Maybe you should just leave those names in the food "lingua franca" of French. If British diners are anything like Americans, I am sure they will find French names for fancy food to be more attractive and familiar than English. (For example, would anyone ever translate "pâté" to English? In American, would that be spam?)
An Expat In Spain - Fri, 4th Nov 2011
Great fun! Now imagine you are a Spanish person living in England and doing the same thing in reverse. Cornish pasties, Lancashire hotpot, Toad in the hole, Welsh rarebit, Spotted Dick, Knickerbocker glory ... That's assuming you can actually find a place in England that still sells English food!
Alcalaina - Mon, 28th Feb 2011

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