Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How to Order in Spanglish and Menus Lost in Translation

The main square of the romantic city of Cuzco, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When Luis and I visited Peru for the first time, we fell in love with Cuzco, the ancient, touristy, yet intensely romantic town just outside of Machu Picchu. In order to avoid the crowded main square and tourist-oriented restaurants with their English-language menus, we climbed up the town's crumbling stone stairways and wandered through the dimly lit and loosely cobbled streets in search of more authentic fare. We finally stumbled (literally) upon a traditional looking family restaurant and decided to try it out. Once inside, we realized why the place was tourist-free, at least of the English-speaking variety: the menu was almost indecipherable. The owners tried, bless their hearts, but the menus must have been translated by a very sight-impaired or very drunk person or both, with a small print dictionary in a dimly-lit room.

Dinner offerings in Cuzco, Peru if you don't have a translator (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Underneath each item's Spanish description was a semi-understandable English translation. At the time, I was just starting to learn Spanish and Luis was just learning English, so he was unable to translate for me, but, as I understood it, what was basically on offer was the following: Stringed Worms on a Mattress of Curd; Fried Daddies (I later learned that this was meant to be Fried Potatoes or French Fries. Apparently, some confusion arose in the dimly-lit room, since the word for potato is "papa" and the word for daddy is "papá", hence, Fried Daddies); Arm of Broasted Chick; Long Fish of a River Kind; Smashed Roots of Tapioca with Hamster. The hamster turned out to be guinea pig, Peru's national dish known as cuy (pronounced koo-ee), and the restaurant had a pen full of them in the back so that you could pick out the one you wanted, kind of like a lobster. As tempting as that all sounded, I decided to take the safe route and order whatever Luis was going to eat.

Dubious offerings at the alligator sandwich restaurant (photo by Simone Cannon)

Anyone who has traveled internationally can feel my pain. At least with Spanish, there is an outside chance that you can learn a few words and figure out some basic options. Not so with Chinese, Japanese or Thai, at least not for me. While traveling through Asia, I quickly gave up trying to decipher menus and just started pointing at symbols on the menu, hoping for the best. I would often end up staring at a plate full of tiny birds no larger than a sparrow that the waitress would insist was chicken. Boy, they must have some really undersized chicken in China. Once I accidentally ordered a slithery looking plate of jellyfish in Beijing, but actually, it turned out to be really delicious. Who knew? In Brazil recently, while trying to order a late-night snack in a sandwich place, we came across these menu descriptions: Alligator Cheese, Cheeseburger Alligator, Cheese Alligator Fashion (which described itself as consisting of Bread of Burger, Grilled Alligator Bait (don't ask), lettuce, tomatoes and special sauce) and Hot Joint, Hot Joint Light and Special Hot Joint Light. Those last ones sounded promising, but, sadly, only turned out to be french bread, ham and cheese (which is generally what you crave after a hot joint). In El Calafate, in the Patagonian region of Argentina, there was an ice-cream parlor named Helados Tit, which Luis was very excited about, especially when he found out that all the flavors had "tit" in the name: vanilla tit, chocolate tit, rum raisin tit and were naturally doled out in, shall we say, curvaceous scoops.

Luis' favorite ice-cream parlor (photo by Simone Cannon)

To be fair, English speakers are hardly blameless. In Florida, there used to be a Mexican restaurant chain named Chi-Chi's that had, as one of it's "authentic" Mexican food items, "Burro Frito con Queso". Translation: "Fried Donkey with Cheese". Not many takers, I'd bet. Maybe that's why they're out of business.    

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