If you are working in the field of restaurant food service, equipment, and supply, you know how important it is to find a language service provider (LSP) who is familiar with the demands of your industry. There are many specific requirements when it comes to translating the industry documentation and certain tips that the translators could follow in order to produce an excellent service.

When it comes to translating menus, however, the challenge becomes much bigger. No doubt, there are some issues with specific local vegetables, spices or types of cooking, which have no direct translation in the target language. The biggest problem, however, remains the name of the dishes. They pose a challenge even for the seasoned culinary translator. On the other hand, quite often the menus are translated by people with no experience in translation at all.

Below is a quick review of the most common problems associated with menu translations and an idea of how to cope with that on your own.

The Challenges of Translating Menus

Even experienced translators face problems when they need to work on something as specific as a menu. Some of the tricky issues include:

  • Regional ingredients – there are some specific herbs, spices, or vegetables that have no analogue in the target language. Quite often there is also the problem of having two or three options and the translator needs to find the best match;
  • Specific cooking methods – some cultures have a specific way of cooking certain meat, for example, which cannot be translated in the target language. There is either no term or the one that is close enough doesn’t fully cover the specificity of the process;
  • Specific culinary terms – some translators, who have no experience in the field, are not familiar with the culinary terms. For example, instead of seaweed, menus might offer laver.
  • No counterpart of the food term in the target language – sometimes there is simply no word for the specific term. In such case, translators can simply transliterate the word and if appropriate give some explanation what it means.

It is important to agree in advance with the customer, which approach you shall adopt to the translation of the menu. Do you simply translate the name of the dish or also add explanation of what it looks like or consists of?

Menus Translated by Non-Professionals

Most of the times, if not in all cases, the hilarious dish names we enjoy in the menu are the result of unprofessional work. Chefs, waiters or restaurant managers with some knowledge of a given language attempt to translate the menu.

It is much better to excuse yourself to the clients and explain that there is no menu in their language, rather than offer something that doesn’t help them at all.

Dish Names that Miss the Mark

While being funny or ridiculous, some menu translations can be quite offensive. Since this is done unintentionally, such dish names should not be taken seriously. Most often such translations occur between two absolutely different languages like alphabet-based English and ideograph languages like Chinese. A few such offensive dish names, collected by Smosh include:

  • Popular steak children die
  • Married couple’s slices of lung
  • Poo of beef
  • Urinate beef boll rice noodles

3 Translation Apps that Can Help in a Pinch

Quite often, foreign restaurants do not offer menus translated in any form of English. As a consumer you might be at a complete loss as what to order. Is it a starter, a desert, sweet or hot? Does it contain something you are allergic to? Well, there is an option to solve this problem due to the new technologies. Below, you will find three apps that can help you with menu translations. Do not expect perfect results, but at least you will get a rough idea of the type of dish or the meat it contains.

  • Waygo

Waygo is one of the new apps that is created exactly with the idea of translating menus from Chinese into English. Recently, Japanese was also added.

There is a free version that offers ten translations per day, a weekly subscription for $1.99 or an unlimited option for $6.99. All you need to do is use your iPhone’s camera over a few lines of the text and the translation will appear under the window.

The drawbacks of this app are that it is supported only by iOS and offers just two languages. It also needs clear type to be able to translate the text and uses a lot of your battery.  The translations are not perfect but still good enough to give you an idea.

The advantages are that these two languages are Chinese and Japanese, which the other apps often miss. The best part is that the app works offline as well.

  • Word Lens

Word Lens is an app supported by both Android and iOS and while you can download it for free, you need to pay $4.99 for each language you want translated. It covers languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, or Italian but no character languages (Chinese or Japanese).

You can use the app to translate anything from newspaper articles to billboards and signs. All you need to do is point your camera at the text. The funny part is that you will not only get a translation but the text will be incorporated in the image following the same font and size.

Overall, Word Lens is a bit expensive, doesn’t support many languages and drains your battery, but is fun to use.

  • Google Translate

Google Translate is perhaps the most popular option of all. It is free, supports more than 80 languages and is compatible with both Android and iOS. Android users have the advantage of picture translation as well.

You need a snapshot of the text and once the image is processed you select the passage to be translated with your fingertips. The selections can be saved for later usage.

To sum up, menu translations are more challenging than the other types of translations since they involve specific ingredients or cultural references without much context. If you are a restaurant owner, it is highly recommended to look for a translator who has specific experience in the field. As a restaurant-goer, it is good to keep in mind that most menus are not translated by professionals, so do not judge the text too harsh and enjoy the funny parts.

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