Kettledrums and creaking ham

« previous post | next post »

There may be Language Log readers whose reaction to the wonderful series of posts started by Victor Mair (the ones with the photographs of signs in Chinese supermarkets saying things like "Fuck to spread the fruit"), now classified under our Lost In Translation category, was that they constitute cruel mockery and humiliation of Chinese people. Not our intent, of course; these disastrous mistranslations are a linguistic phenomenon crying out to be explained. If we merely wanted to laugh at Chinese grocery store managers we would want the signs left up uncorrected. We would never mention them; we would just pass the photos round by email, and snigger privately. Anyway, it's not about Chinese or the Chinese people, though various factors conspire to make their errors salient (there are over a billion of them, and many of them never meet a native speaker who could serve as an informal translation consultant, and the language has a very high degree of non-systematic polysemy). Long-time Language Log readers may recall that Spanish attempts at constructing English prose can be just as capable of being unintendedly hilarious.

Indeed, yesterday I was in a hotel in La Coruña, a bustling port city of northern Spain, and I found that the room service menu offered, among other things, Kettledrum of potatoes with broken eggs and creaking ham. I'll leave comments open below for people to try their hand at figuring out from Spanish/English dictionaries how this little translinguistic catastrophe could have happened. ("Creaking" was not a typo; "creaking pizza" was also on the menu.) It might be charged that there is much less excuse for such zany mangling of English in the case of a port city across the Bay of Biscay from England: La Coruña is just 90 minutes' flight time from Heathrow, and hundreds or thousands of native speakers of English come through every week. All a hotel manager would have to do would be to sit down with one guest for five minutes to learn that a kettledrum is a poor choice of cooking utensil, and that the (utterly delicious) ham of northern Spain does not creak any more than pizza does.


  1. JP said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:08 am

    "Tímpano" is a dish in which ingredients are baked in a tall bowl, so "kettledrum" is not a bad literal translation. See, e.g.,

  2. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    Was it perhaps jamon rallado — grated (or shredded) ham? Grate is listed as a synonym for creak in my thesaurus.

  3. Adrienne said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:20 am

    "huevos rotos" literally means broken eggs, but refers to fried eggs with the yolk broken. My dictionary says a kettledrum is a timbal, which I believe is also a mold used to make a neat cylinder of whatever's in it. I don't know about the ham.

  4. Tobia said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    creaking pizza = shredded pizza? Maybe not.
    I don't speak Spanish but in Italian an adjective used a lot with food and which might apply both to ham and pizza is "croccante", i.e. crunchy. Maybe there is a similar word in Spanish?

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    "jamon crujiente" has a significant number of apparently valid Google hits, and "crujiente de jamon" has even more — "crujir" is translated as "crunch; creak; grind", and "crujiente" as "crunchy" or "crispy".

  6. Maria said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    I would say crocante, as it would also apply to pizza. Crujiente sounds weird, but maybe it's used in Spain.

    Kettledrum is definitely timbal, as JP said, and I'll second Adrienne with the huevos rotos.

  7. Maria said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:37 am

    Sorry, that should be as Adrienne said, not JP. I reconsidered :)

  8. Geoff Pullum said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Mark wins the bottle of rioja. Crujiente was the Spanish word translated as "creaking" (there was a Spanish version of the menu). And timbal was right for the kettledrum. This underlines my point: all over the world there are good folks who read Language Log and could advise any restaurateur who asked; but people are translating stuff without asking anyone. They are braver than I am: I wouldn't risk making my business look silly with a translation into a language I don't know. Or at least, if I did take the risk of spending a half-hour of puzzlement and guesswork with a bilingual dictionary, I'd ask someone who knew the language to check my work.

  9. Maria said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    I'm originally from Argentina and went back home in January. I visited the glaciers in Patagonia with my siblings. We went to a small city that is basically built for foreign tourism (Calafate), and we didn't know what to make of the terrible translations in restaurant menus and in signposts in the national park. I can understand that the guides weren't the best English speakers ever – but the glaring grammar and vocabulary mistakes in writing were embarrassing.

    And I asked myself the same question – why can't they check with a tourist?

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    As God is my witness, in Brittany a couple of years ago, I found "Frozen Lawyer" in a dessert menu.

    It's been a matter of continual regret to me ever since that I didn't have the guts to steal the menu.

  11. Charles said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    David: In French, "un avocat" can be a male lawyer or an avocado. I'm betting this is the connection :)

  12. Jorge said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    Why assume that bad translations are bad for business? Maybe the restauranteurs have figured that having people focus on the funny translations distracts them from looking at the prices.

  13. Ewan said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

    Indeed – there is a Vietnamese restaurant not far from here that has "soft-shell crap" on the menu. I have never ordered the crap, since I'm quite indifferent to seafood, but I find it gives the restaurant a certain added appeal.

  14. blahedo said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    I'm quite sure there are examples of this the other way throughout the English-speaking world (to the extent that anyone bothers to translate anything here, that is). A few years back, a friend of mine worked at a bank—in IT, not management or "on the front lines" as it were—and at one point they decided to update their ATM menus to be multilingual. To that end, they literally asked around the office for anyone that spoke any French, German, etc., and so my friend, hardly a native speaker, became an ad hoc German translation consultant. We both wondered if it wouldn't be better to, you know, hire someone with translation experience…. (But I did think her translation of the "Fast Cash" option as "Schnell Geld" was pretty snazzy.)

  15. Licia said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    Italian speakers might find this menu amusing:
    The photo was taken in Alto Adige, the German-speaking part of Italy, a great source of "distortions" of the Italian language…

  16. Arthur Crown said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    Frozen avocado? A dessert? In France?

  17. Peter Erwin said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

    why can't they check with a tourist?

    Would they trust a tourist?
    (I can easily imagine mischievous tourists suggesting humorous bad translations, or telling them, "Oh, yes, 'creaking ham' is perfect English.")

    And one could argue that finding a tourist who is sufficiently fluent in both languages[*] and who has the time and patience to undertake such corrections — while they're supposedly on vacation — may not be as easy as it seems.

    [*] Sure, a native English speaker can tell you that "creaking ham" sounds weird and unappetizing. That's a start. But can they also tell you what you should say, instead — especially if they (being tourists) have no idea what "jamon crujiente" is in the first place?

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    I believe it was merely chilled. I didn't try to find out.

    On the other hand, their gastronomic skills may have been no greater than their translation skills – it was a very long way from Paris.

  19. Rob Perez said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

    As someone who has had to hire translators from time to time, I've found that the problem is finding someone who is entirely fluent in the target language (in order to avoid the type of mistake described here) while still being sufficiently fluent in the source language to catch all the intricacies of the source text. You really need someone who has been raised completely bilingual, or you will lose something on both ends. The next best thing would be a pair of people who are pretty close to native speakers on both sides. Anything else is likely to result in something being lost (or inadvertently introduced).

  20. Rob Perez said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    Ah – and as for advocat, is it possible that the reference is to the Dutch egg-based alcohol (advocaat)? It's generally served quite chilled (though considered to be an older women's drink).

  21. nbm said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

    Or how about "affogato," the Italian dessert usually made by "drowning" ice cream in coffee.

  22. Don Campbell said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 1:09 am

    I have been a tourist asked to help improve English translations for tourists, so it does happen, though perhaps not often enough.

    I was sitting in the Japan National Tourist Office in Ginza, Tokyo waiting for a friend. I'd already had a chat with the nice ladies there in English, as their English was much better than my Japanese.

    As I was sitting there, one of the ladies came over and after much typical Japanese bowing and apologies for bothering me asked me to proofread a brochure for English tourists.

    It was about opening and closing times for the Emperor's Palace and with a few questions about what they really meant to say in a couple of places – there was an issue with "on Monday" vs. "on Mondays" or similar – we produced a much clearer version of the English brochure.

    So as long as the English is halfway there and there is time to explain what the brochure/menu/etc. is about, you don't need to be too bilingual to fix Lost in Translations.

  23. Freddy Hill said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 3:27 am

    Cimbal de huevos rotos y jamon crujiente.

    The first part is quite common. It's flaky pastry with a fried egg on it. The egg is cut before serving so that the yolk wets the dough. Jamon crujiente, I'm not too sure. But it may be cured ham put on top of the eggs and placed in the broiler for a few minutes until it gets crunchy like bacon.

    mmmm… Si non e' vero ben trovato. I think I ll make some right now. I'll report unless it's good enough to copyright.

  24. michael farris said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 3:43 am

    A few random hurried points:

    1. Why wouldn't people think to ask a native speaker? For one, virtually the entire ESL industry (in Europe, ime) tells them that they don't need to. No materials that I've ever seen in any of the major coursebooks used ever indicate that native speaker intuitions are any more valid than some advanced learner. (And generally English speakers are notorious for not correcting L2 speakers as long as they can understand them).

    2. Some poor souls like to think that the spread of English as an L2 means that people actually care about it as a language. IME the great majority … don't. Whether it's good for a language to have so many people using it (often on a daily basis) who view it almost entirely in terms of being a useful tool is another question.

    3. The purpose of tourists is not to do editing but to spend money. If they want to ask anyone it should be a native English speaker living in the area (I'm sure they exist).

    4. I wouldn't be surprised if the menu is the work of a local professional. There are some non-native English speakers who work as translators or editors are embarrassed or mortified to admit there's some part of the language they don't know (no matter how trivial) or who simply don't have frequent contact with natives to consult about fine points of usage.

  25. Michael said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 4:47 am

    In Turkey, there are a few classic ones that (fortunately or unfortunately) are starting to appear less and less now (seems restaurateurs are catching on to the unintentional hilarity and feeling ashamed):

    "Sensitive Meatball" is one, a translation of "içli köfte". "Meatball" is the standard translation for "köfte" (though it's less a meatball per se than a flattened meatball), but "içli" has the double meaning of "sensitive, emotional, etc." (when used for people) and "having an inside part" (the one that should be used, since "içli köfte" is a meatball stuffed inside a covering of bulghur, semolina, and onions). What an accurate and succinct translation would be, I don't know.

    "Confused Salad" is another, a translation of "karışık salata". It should just be "mixed salad", since it's composed of assorted greens, but "karışık" is also used, especially when modifying the noun "kafa" ("head"), to mean "confused". So, just like the "sensitive meatball", it's another case of the personification of food, making for a very lively Turkish table.

    (Incidentally, among the ex-pats in Turkey, these types of mistranslations are known as "chicken translations", which comes from another example of this sort of thing: "piliç çevirme" (literally, "rotating chicken") is used for "rotisserie chicken", but, since "çevirme" can also mean "translation" … Voilà.)

  26. Graham Pointon said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:38 am

    A very obscure one I came across in France a few years ago was "Old salt cooked the natural way".
    On the same menu was "Half a cock in dragon sauce". It was some years later that I realised the translation must have been done by a Dutchman, as the Dutch for tarragon is 'dragon'.
    Very tasty, but less appetising in its description was "Very best meat of chest of duck, cooked for hours in its own grease".

  27. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    There was a Chinese restaurant near the school I taught at in the Left Bank in the seventies with advertised "Chick with five perfumes" (Poulet aux cinq parfums).

    Some years later in Malasaña there was a bar with a payphone that told people to insert money in the corridor (pasillo). I took the translation out and replaced it with the correct English "put the coin in the slot", but when I passed by the next week the old translation was back up.

  28. Cathy said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Mr. Pullum, I am wondering whether you offered to sit down with the hotel manager in La Coruña while you were there, or is creaking pizza still on the menu?

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    Another interesting restaurant word is the phrase seen in nearly all Saudi restaurants 'broasted chicken'. This is pieces of chicken covered in batter like Kentucky fried chicken. I believe the derivation is B-Roasted Chicken, the 'B' standing for Barbecued, but am not totally sure. Anybody else got any ideas?

  30. MikeA said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    Broasted Chicken? You don't need to leave the U.S. for that. At least, when I was a child (back when chickens still had teeth), it was quite widely offered in rural California, and I believe I also saw it in Nebraska and Iowa. Not knowing I would later be an avid LL reader, I did not take notes. Not being in charge of the family car, I also never sampled it, but I would suggest that the Saudi's have some ex-pat America broast-cooks. My impression is that it is essentially "Oven Roasted" battered chicken, with the specific term being something of a "trademark" (although perhaps more like "Joe's Special", use by a certain sort of restaurant, regardless of financial ties)

  31. bfwebster said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    In all this, we should remember that the 'funny' translations are not limited to -to-English. Thirty-plus years ago, while doing missionary work down in Central America, I had occasion to go to the movie theaters to see imported Chinese kung fu movies. The subtitles were in Spanish and were often contained obvious grammatical errors as well as vocabulary choices that clearly had little to do with what was on the screen. ..bruce..

  32. Alvin Arnold said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    @Stephen Jones, Mike A

    Broasting is a high-pressure frying process created (and trademarked) by the Broaster Company. It is the process used by KFC and other chains to produce crispy, moist chicken. A broaster fryer differs from a pressure cooker in that it uses oil, which can reach temperatures of almost 500 degrees, rather than the water used in a standard pressure cooker. Don't try broasting using a home pressure cooker. –AA

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

    So how is broasting different from deep frying?

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    OK; apparently it involves a pressure fryer, which is what a broaster is except if you call it a broaster you get a lawyer's letter.

  35. Graham Pointon said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 4:33 am

    For those who are still wondering:
    Old salt = old sea dog = loup de mer = sea bass
    'steamed sea bass'

  36. Daniel Parra said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    How about the double fault (nothing to do with tennis)? What started out in France as "Lotte à l'Armoricain" has become the Spanish "Rape a la Americana" (monkfish).

    When I came to Spain in 1959 I loved reading the mistranslated menus, and my all-time favorite remains "Rape American Style".

  37. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

    I have a friend-of-a-friend who works as a professional translator in Madrid and who, as a sideline, visits restaurants with bilingual menus on display. After ordering and eating his meal, he calls over the restaurant manager, points out a few mistakes in the translation, and offers to produce a correct version of the menu "for free". Inevitably, of course, the grateful restaurateur gives him a meal on the house for his trouble … I thnk yopu missed a trick, Geoff …

  38. David said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 3:23 am

    Crujido can mean crusty, crackling, and crunchy.
    Crujido translates as "creaky" on one online translator (

    Perhaps the pizza was of the thin crust variety, and the ham was fried until crunchy.

    Kettledrum could be constructed from a variety of spanish words such as olla, hervidor, tambor, etc. Another translation that relates is for barco or barzo – A large flat bottomed vessel.

    If the menu's author has a dictionary enabling him to look up one word at a time, but a fancy two or three word name for a bowel, it's easy to imagine him looking up each distinct word, then running them together. Kettle + Drum. I didn't try babelfish, that service seems to mangle translations even better than I.

  39. David said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 3:24 am

    I meant bowl :)

  40. dr pepper said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 6:15 am

    > (the one that should be used, since "içli köfte" is a meatball stuffed inside
    > a covering of bulghur, semolina, and onions). What an accurate and
    > succinct translation would be, I don't know.


  41. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    Ted Powell's position that to deny an intent of "cruel mockery and humiliation" is to suggest just that, seems one with Peter Erwin's belief that tourists can't be trusted to give good faith translations. I congratulate both on a rare combination of naivety and cynicism.

    Mr. Erwin posits tourists would, in any case, need to be bilingual. Why? Assuming restauranteurs know enough English to ask, theyd, of course, ask tourists eating the dish. And, certainly, they'd doublecheck those replies with others at the table and against an additional inquiry or two, less for jokers stupid enough to mess with a foreigner feeding them far from home, than for honest failures of communication. Whatever tourists don't eat off the menu, it'd behoove restauranteurs, imo, to offer samples in conjunction with asking about the menu English, which may well be hurting sales. I personally wouldn't chance the frozen lawyer, the dollar being where it is, even though the name is priceless.

  42. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    Jorge speculates that bad English may be good for business. I admit I can vouch for the truth of this, at least in America, where my family has long held bad English to be a mark of authenticity that recommends an ethnic restaurant. This, though we' once had a friendly server tell us being Vietnamese got her hired, because the chefs and owners of the Thai eatery weren't Thai either, but "just like you guys".

  43. Me said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    I am quite sure the original Spanish menu must have said "Timbal de patatas con huevos rotos y crujiente de jamón", which in itself is a rather snobish way of naming what the average Spanish person would refer to as "huevos rotos con jamón".

  44. marie-lucie said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    "frozen lawyer": menus are not the only ones affected. I once heard an interview on Canadian radio with a French woman who was a professional translator and had collected a number of howlers. The one I remember was "lawyer cream" for an avocado face cream made in France (in this case, she said that the product had had to be withdrawn and repackaged before being put back on the English-speaking market).

    In Canada where both French and English are required to appear on product descriptions, it is obvious that some manufacturers are reluctant to hire a professional translator just to translate a few English words into French, and perhaps they rely on their high school memory or a cheap dictionary, because many such translations are just as bad as the menu examples above.

    Another common problem with translation of product ingredients and instructions seems to be that (at least some) translators appear to be given texts to translate without having any idea of what the product is and what it is for. As an example, not too long ago I bought one of these battery-powered lamps that you can stick to the wall in a dark closet for when you need some light there. The English instructions said "Apply and reapply to clean surfaces" – meaning that the surfaces must be clean for the lamp to stick to them, but you can move it to different places if you need to. In French, the wording meant "Apply and reapply in order to clean the surfaces" – perhaps some buyers of the lamp have been scrubbing their walls with it. (In contrast, the Spanish text gave the appropriate translation).

  45. Craig Balmain said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    My all time favourite has to be one from a restaurant in the small, mountain town of Cazorla in southern Spain. Amidst a long list of hilarious mis-translations, "natural fragmentation of hand-grenade" for 'fresh, sliced pineapple' has stuck in my mind all these years. I used to guide walking groups there, and after a long day's trek there was nothing better than a couple of glasses of 'Rioja' and THAT menu for breaking the ice with stuffy groups. As my clients were falling off their chairs in agonised, side-splitting laughter our expressionless waiter/restauranteur would simply keep repeating, "Ya sé, es muy malo" (I know…it's really bad). That he'd never asked me or any other native english speaker to correct it, coupled with the fact that multiple trekking tour operators continually used his place, all led me to believe he knew exactly which side his "pan" was buttered.

  46. Alon said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    @Craig Balmain: that should be "fresh pomegranate". "Granada" is the name of both the fruit and the weapon in Spanish. "Pineapple" would be "piña" in Spain, or "ananá" in most of the Americas.

RSS feed for comments on this post