Words from the Wardrobe
machine translation and recipes

Machine translation and recipes

Most Europeans have a soft spot for Scotland. It’s understandable with its breathtaking cliffs, castles that tell tales of bygone times and the irresistible petrichor, especially after the first shower of the day.

Those who don’t speak English no doubt use a machine translator on their smartphone as a crutch to decipher the menu at the pub the holiday rental owner recommended them. The translation is never perfect but at least they get an inkling of what they’re ordering.

What’s one of the most typical holiday souvenirs? Many foodies love to grab a recipe book without being fazed by not understanding it properly. After all, that’s what machine translators are for, right?

Well, not really.

This year, to celebrate World Tourism Day, I’d like to show you an example of a machine-translated recipe.

In keeping with the country theme, I’ve picked a traditional Scottish recipe: Haggis, neeps and tatties.

Here’s the translation, fresh from the Google Translate oven, followed by my analysis.

Recipe translation

recipe translation


The world of food and drink is all about culture and tradition. That’s why it is sometimes difficult to find the exact ingredients used in a recipe because they just don’t exist in our country.

Here are the ingredient-related mistakes and inaccuracies I spotted in this recipe translation.


Haggis is a savoury pudding that combines sheep’s pluck minced with chopped onions, oatmeal, herbs, spices and salt. In my opinion, this type of recipe should firstly explain what haggis is and offer an equivalent in case the budding chef is not able to find the mixture in their country.

If you were to ask a Spanish butcher for haggis, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, so your only other option would be to try your luck at a specialist British shop.

However, if the recipe were to include alternative ingredients -even if they are not quite the same- you could cook this dish at home.

In this case, I think that an explanation of what haggis is would be enough, because in Spain we also have sheep’s pluck.

This is typical of machine translations, since they only translate what appears in the text, nothing else. We human translators see beyond the text and we always keep the reader in mind. If we notice that something needs explaining, we mention it to our client, who naturally has the last word.

Although in this case haggis wouldn’t be translated, machine translators do often miss out words, simply leaving them in the source language.

Swedish man

This is a really literal translation. Swede = sueco.

In Spanish, ‘sueco’ means Swede, as in a person from Sweden, whereas the vegetable would be ‘colinabo’.

This is a Swede, or colinabo in Spanish.

Butter doorknob

Measurements are a culinary nightmare. In addition to weight and liquid conversions, there are traditional measurements like cup, dessertspoon, teaspoon, handful, pinch, or as we say in Malaga ‘mititilla’ (meaning ‘a little’ but I don’t think you’d ever see it in a recipe). Plus, some food for thought: how much would Dwayne Johnson’s handful be?

It’s fairly obvious that we don’t need a ‘butter doorknob’ for this recipe. ‘Knob of butter’ should have been translated as ‘nuez de mantequilla’.

In Spanish, we call a knob of butter a ‘nuez de mantequilla’ because it has the same size of a walnut.

Typographical errors

800g should be 800 g. Tools like Google Translate don’t consider text format and simply copy the source text. So if the source is incorrect, like our case in question, the translation will be too.


To start with, ‘preparación’ is a more accurate translation for ‘method’ than its literal equivalent, ‘método’.

At first glance, the translation doesn’t look that bad.

It’s understandable and you can follow the steps, but the inaccuracies —from a linguistic point of view— are clear:

  • Which tense? There’s a mix between the infinitive and the imperative.
  • Formality, which ‘you’? The machine translator has used both ‘tú’ (informal singular you) and ‘usted’ (formal singular you).
  • Words borrowed from English should be written in italics: whisky, haggis.

The most serious error is —once again— thanks to swede, in this extract (scroll up to see the translation):

Pelar y cortar las patatas y el nabo y cocinar por separado hasta que ambos estén blandos. Tritura las patatas con la leche, la mantequilla y los condimentos. Haz lo mismo con el sueco pero sin la leche.

As I’ve already mentioned, ‘swede’ should be ‘colinabo’. It’s interesting to see that Google translated the first instance pretty well (‘nabo’ meaning ‘turnip’ or ‘root vegetable’) but our good friend the Swede showed up the second time.

So, here is another difference with human translators: we review our translations and sometimes we also send them to a second translator for review.

Conclusion: it all depends on the translation’s purpose

In translation, the translation’s purpose is key. We need to think what purpose the recipe translation will have.

For gist translation: you’re translating the text for personal use.

Food sector translation: the translation will be published in a recipe book.

Commercial translation: you have a restaurant or British product shop and you’ve collected some recipes to publish a short book you want to give your customers.

We all know that this machine translation without post-editing would only be good for the first case. Even then, we’d need a little help to make sure we properly understand the ingredients and method.

For the other two, we’d need a professional translator to post-edit the translation, i.e. correct all the mistakes and inaccuracies, since it is not ready for publication. If it were published like that, it would do more harm than good.

Moreover, a professional translator would work with more things than just the text before them, they’d also consider the images, context and the translation’s purpose.

My conclusion is simple:

Is machine translation useful? Yes.

Is machine translation useful for everything? No.

Before you use machine translation services, think what you’re going to use the translation for because maybe just pressing “translate” won’t suffice. If that’s your case, message me and we can have a chat.

See you for the next post!

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