Menu Translations.

Emily Monaco writes for the always interesting Atlas Obscura about Why Menu Translations Go Terribly Wrong:

When I first came to Paris, I was confronted with a strange problem: I couldn’t understand restaurants’ English menus, even when I knew the French dishes. From “chicken in her juice” to “chicken wok way” and “baba with old rum,” menu translations ran the gamut from slightly-dirty to just plain surreal.

It wasn’t until I became a culinary translator myself that I realized just how hard this job is. I had assumed that laughable menu translations were the result of restaurant managers and chefs (with limited language skills) making mistakes. But even for fluent experts, food and menus are uniquely challenging to translate. (The results can be hilarious: We asked Atlas Obscura readers to tell us some of the best mistranslations they’ve seen, and you can admire them in this article’s images.)

She lists some of the obvious problems, then says:

But even someone with a firm grasp of both languages can find themselves stumped when confronted with certain menu items. This is especially true, notes Marrakech-based food and travel writer Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, because some food words just “don’t exist in English, or the words that are closest don’t really adequately explain what something is.”

She points to Moroccan mechoui, which, she says, “means slow-roasted sheep, but it’s not roasted in the way that it would be anywhere else.” The same issue arises with the international varieties of fermented dairy: Should it be “strained yogurt cheese” or labneh? Should quark be called a “German fresh cheese”? A similar question was posed in France when kale was reintroduced by Kristen Beddard of the Kale Project in 2012—should servers and menus call it chou plume, a pretty name that means “feathered cabbage,” chou frisé non pommé, a technically correct if lengthy term meaning “curly, non-knobbed cabbage,” or chou kale—an Anglicism that ended up becoming the norm?

A related problem is that food names or terms often have positive associations in one culture, but nowhere else. Cubans love ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish whose name literally translates to “old clothes”), Mexicans enjoy tacos sudados (literally “sweaty tacos”), and Moroccans are all about roasted sheep head. In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.

Don’t miss the “three possible translations for the classic French comfort food dish, ile flottante,” and of course don’t miss the images, which have some terrific specimens. I apologize if all this makes you hungry; I’m now jonesing for the ropa vieja of my New York days. (By the way, we discussed some of this stuff back in 2008.) Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. >Should quark be called a “German fresh cheese”?

    People in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and other countries would be upset by such translation.

  2. I did a gig once as a Portuguese-to-Japanese menu translator and yes, it was exhausting and maddening. Shortly after starting I quit it, due to the translator’s greatest nemesis: pay was abysmal for such a task. (We were paid flat rates per restaurant, same for all languages; so I got the same compensation as the Portuguese-to-Spanish people!…)

    As for the “quark” issue, there was a lot of ¿por qué no los dos?-ing in my menus, whenever I felt a noun merited to be treated as proper (“Feijoada pork-and-beans stew”, “X-salada cheeseburger” etc.) (n.b. “X-” /ʃis/ as a food term is originally just an abbreviation for the Brazilian pronunciation of “cheese” < "cheeseburger"; I used the "ATM machine" technique often).

  3. I’ve heard of an Israeli menu which had “remorse” in the English section, as a translation for Hebrew klayot, ‘kidneys’. The obscure but certain connection is the expression musar klayot, literally ‘kidney chastisement’, meaning remorse; the earliest record of this concept is in Psalms 16:7. Whoever translated the menu must have skipped a line in the dictionary.

  4. One of the most absurd menu translations I have ever seen came from the city where I live. One of the local restaurants served szyjki rakowe ‘crayfish tails’ — literally in Polish, ‘crayfish necks’. Needless to point out, that part of crayfish anatomy is technically neither tail nor neck but the abdomen. Anyway, the Polish word rak can also mean ‘cancer’, and szyjka, the diminutive of szyja ‘neck’, has a number of secondary senses. Szyjka macicy, for example, is a calque of Latin cervix uteri (the cervix = the “neck” of the uterus).

    The person who translated the Polish menu into English did so with the help of Google Translate. The poor program did the best it could do in the face of these anatomical complications, and — before the media noticed — for a few days the restaurant had Cervical cancers on its menu.

  5. menu translations from Chinese to Russian

    http://go2load.com/14624-kitajskij-perevod-menyu.html

    Translation of B.B.Q. steak is frightening

  6. David Marjanović says:

    In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.

    German uses the usual trick of resorting to a separate word: wine or beer is called herb instead of bitter.

    People in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and other countries would be upset by such translation.

    Indeed I suspect that Quark is a loan from such Slavic words as Polish twaróg. With /tv/ having disappeared from German, the best options are /tsv/ and /kv/, which have both been chosen for different words; and Quark is a northern word, the southern one being Topfen with an evidently High German /pf/.

    “X-” /ʃis/ as a food term is originally just an abbreviation for the Brazilian pronunciation of “cheese” < “cheeseburger”

    Fractal awesomeness.

  7. Szyjki rakowe sounds almost exactly like ракови шийки /ˈrakovi ˈʃijki/, and has the exact same, for both words, potential for machine mistranslation in Bulgarian. Cverival cancer in Bulgarian would be рак на маточната шийка /rak na ˈmatot͡ʃnata ˈʃijka/.

    EDIT: googling “ракови шийки” the first page is only about crevical cancer.

  8. Sorry for mistyping “cervical” twice, in different ways. I was busy trying to get the blog platform to handle my pseudo-IPA (as in not directly copy-pasting the IPA symbols).

  9. speedwell says:

    Seen in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall on my last business trip: “Deep-fried aborigine in chily sauce”. It took this American a few minutes to realise it was eggplant.

  10. BTW, Piotr, how do they cook them in your town? Around here, we boil them and then bake them with rice and leeks.

    Also, I want to add that translating menus intended for a global audience is indeed extremely difficult. I have to go now, but I’ll come back later. It’s worse than translating Pynchon.

  11. When translating menus, there are two routes: being as literal and faithful as you can and approximating through near equivalents and explanation.

    I, for one, go for using as many source-language words as possible and include footnotes, but then again, not too many.

    In any case, I see translating menus as a rough guide to what diners are going to order and eat. After all, after they eat what they ordered based on the translated menu, they will figure out what they are getting. Hence, I wouldn’t be too harsh on some of the silly menu you find out there.

  12. Sometimes you just have to give up, go verbatim, and let the public catch up. There’s a fun appetizer dish called 蚂蚁上树 mǎ​yǐ ​shàng ​shù “Ants climbing a tree.” I think it’s a Shanghai dish. You chop beef, bell pepper, water chestnuts and wood ear fungus together, stir fry it, and eat it in lettuce cups. It tastes like a taco. Why even bother coming up with an English equivalent?

  13. “Ropa Vieja” is one I don’t think I’ve ever seen translated anywhere. Understandable, since “old clothes” is kind of nasty-sounding to English speakers (and I think Spanish speakers don’t stop and associate shredded beef with nasty, sweaty laundry, either). I think you either see “ropa vieja” in places where there’s a lot of familiarity with Cuban cuisine or “shredded beef.”

    From Spanish to English, I once found a funny error. French fries are “papitas fritas” in Spanish – fried potatoes (diminutive). I found a Cuban menu that had them translated as “French Fried.” It appears somebody knew that in English they had something to do with France, but they didn’t remember the second bit well enough and decided to translate from the Spanish. The end result sounds a little “human-itarian.” Bon appetit?

  14. BTW, Piotr, how do they cook them in your town?

    In that particular case, it was an hors d’oeuvre called szyjki rakowe podawane na carpaccio z buraka z dipem musztardowo-miodowym, translated into English as cervical cancer served on beetroot carpaccio with mustard-honey dip. The affair rose to international notoriety when a British customer took photos of the menu and sent them to “The Mirror”.

  15. ə de vivre says:

    In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.

    There was an ad (in the late 90s? early 00s?) for Budweiser (I think?) that claimed the beer wouldn’t give you “bitter beer face”, the idea being that bitterness was a sign of poor-quality beer. The campaign disappeared around the same time that IPAs became trendy and (at least among the self-styled beer cognoscenti) bitterness was practically the only measure of a beer’s quality. It seems like the bitterness pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction, and now my smug declarations that I’m not a big fan of really hoppy beer make me look like a cool kid.

  16. January First-of-May says:

    In Russian it’s name of popular Soviet candy

    …while the cancer is called рак шейки матки. I can see why automatic translators might get confused.
    (And, in fact, when you type “шейки раковые” into Google Translate, the result is “cervical cancers”. The unmarked word order “раковые шейки” gives “cancers of the neck”, which isn’t much better.)

    The funniest menu translation I recall seeing personally was an item called (in English) something along the lines of “baked language”. (I recall those two particular words, but not the rest of the translation.)
    Of course it was supposed to be tongue, not language – that much was understandable (it’s the same word in Russian). The funny part was that it wasn’t even baked (but, IIRC, boiled).

  17. In that particular case

    But that aside, how do they cook them in your town? I think V wanted to compare local versions, not weird restaurant fantasias.

  18. Des von Bladet, Burlap of Marginalia, Bearer of Imperial Grudges says:

    “Foodstuff you have no word for cooked in an inexplicable way”. Job done!

  19. Another is Hebrew gvinat xalumi ‘Haloumi cheese’, which the restaurateur couldn’t resist translating to “Dream cheese”, by association with xalom ‘dream’.

  20. “Foodstuff you have no word for cooked in an inexplicable way”. Job done!

    Well, now we’re edging toward the territory of the Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook:

    I have realized that the traditional omelet form (eggs and cheese) is bourgeois. Today I tried making one out of cigarette, some coffee, and four tiny stones. I fed it to Malraux, who puked. I am encouraged, but my journey is still long.

  21. After all, after they eat what they ordered based on the translated menu, they will figure out what they are getting.

    Not when they’re eating at an up-market establishment. A ritzy place isn’t just selling the food, it’s selling atmosphere and class. Dishes have to sound as elegant and appetising as possible, attracting diners with ‘mouth-watering’ adjectives and words like ‘garnished’ (even if the vegetables have just been plonked on the plate). ‘Fuck the ducks’ will not do.

    I once had the job of checking the translation of a menu for German tour groups at a five-star Chinese hotel. I had to ask a German friend as I was certainly not up to doing it myself.

  22. Oh, and 蚂蚁上树 ‘ants climbing the tree’ is from Sichuan.

  23. But that aside, how do they cook them in your town?

    I don’t think there is any special Poznań way of cooking crayfish. I think the best-known recipe is that for a crayfish soup. Traditionally, you throw live crayfish into boiling broth, add a generous amount of fresh dill, take the poor bastards out after 10-15 minutes, remove the meat from the shells, dice it and put back into the broth. The shells should not be thrown away but ground into a powder which is then fried briefly in molten butter to prepare a red-dyed stuff called “crayfish butter”. Finally, you stir some sour cream and crayfish butter into the soup and I think it’s ready. I cooked this soup once or twice when camping near a lake, years ago, but I wouldn’t like to do it again, since the idea of boiling living things alive does not appeal to me.

  24. To me either.

  25. As far as I am concerned, boiling crustaceans is down there on the concern scale with slapping insects.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Slapping kills a lot faster.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    As a teenager, I occasionally put sticks through bugs and watched the resulting struggling.

    I still don’t like the idea of boiling live crayfish.

  28. I have some marbled crayfish in my aquarium. They are incredibly smart for animals widely regarded as “non-sentient”. They have their own ideas concerning the arrangement of rocks, shells and other things on what they regard as their territory, and if I do it my way, the next morning I find the bottom of the tank redecorated to suit their crustacean fancy. They can also grab and manipulate several small objects simultaneously using their appendages. I certainly wouldn’t boil them.

  29. “In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.”

    No idea where the writer got this factoid about Croatia, and no idea what she might be referring to. Bitter (“gorko”) is not an especially sought after flavor and has roughly the same connotations of unpleasantness as the English word.

  30. nemanja: in Bulgarian, “gorko” means something like “pitiful”, although it can have shades of sympathy; it usually does, actually (unless you’re being sarcastic). “Gorchivo”, on the other hand means literally “bitter”, as in the taste; but also has connotations of “bittersweet” and is the traditional cry out at weddings when they are about to kiss. In the context of weddings only.

  31. The version of “ants on a tree” that I’m familiar with is based on noodles and ground pork. Like so: http://thewoksoflife.com/2015/03/ants-climbing-a-tree/

    It does have a certain visual resemblance to ants on tree branches.

    Most of the Chinese restaurants around here that serve it just call it “ants on a tree” and expect the customers to know what it is. Some of them add a little explanation.

    Reading that recipe caused me to think that “glass noodles” is kind of a strange term also.

  32. speedwell says:

    But how quickly do you deep-fry aborigines?

  33. I would expect that most customers of Sichuanese restaurants in Bulgaria and Serbia would know about Sichuanese cuisine.

    EDIT: I know of one. Restaurant.

  34. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Speaking of frying quickly: I suppose everybody who’s been to China has a story like this, but this one stands out in my mind. An upscale-ish new restaurant was opening up in the city where I lived. This was not an everyday occurence, so my friends and I went to check it out a few days after it opened. The sense of a bit of fanfare added to the effect of the English translations on the menu. Just about all of them were gold, but the one that became an in-joke (and consequently the only one that I remember now) was the “exploding oil sandwich”. Not that I knew it at the time, but someone told me later that 爆 bào can mean either “explode” or “quick-fry”. To be honest, the “quick-fry oil sandwich” doesn’t sound all that much more appealing to me. Bon appetit?

  35. ▲▼ Hi gang. Happy year to all! ▲▼

    Café blanc, selected from the menu at a Turkish restaurant in Paris last year, turned out to be simply scented hot water. Not the expected café au lait. Traps for the unwary.

  36. Noetica!!

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, Noetica!!

  38. Jim Doyle says:

    Thanks, Bathrobe! The lack of face freeze fooled me.

  39. No idea where the writer got this factoid about Croatia, and no idea what she might be referring to. Bitter (“gorko”) is not an especially sought after flavor and has roughly the same connotations of unpleasantness as the English word.

    Well, people do love gorki pelinkovac and other gorki likeri. Not that that’s limited to Croatia, but it’s really the only thing I can think of. Definitely not sure Croatia is inordinately fond of bitter flavors or the word itself.

  40. @Cafe blanc: I know that know that one from Lebanon. Interesting that you got it in a Turkish restaurant; I’ve never seen it being served outside Lebanon / Lebanese restaurants.

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