Today we will talk about a very recurrent topic during the years, both among translation professionals -always spotting spelling mistakes or mistranslations- and those who simply speak other languages and pay attention to details: the translation of restaurant menus.
I am sure most of us have found ourselves in a foreign country, exhausted after having enjoyed the sea and sun, head to the closest restaurant, relax in front of a translated menu and… surprise! We have no key of what that is about, and bravely just order “meat” or “fish“…
Obviously, these translations were not carried out by a professional, but someone with some language knowledge, a dictionary and lots of creativity… or just the feared Google Translator…
A restaurant must have certain key factors in order to succeed among a wider group of customers, not just the locals. A good environment, decoration and service are basic, but the main aim of a restaurant customer is to be fed, therefore, the menu is the most important factor among all. We can say that a restaurant’s success depends directly on the menu offered, as it is its image and the link between the restaurant and the diner. We should not underestimate the power of a good menu.
Leaving aside the importance of a good design or a clear way to name and describe a dish, we will focus on translation itself, our actual interest in this blog. Menus are extremely difficult to translate: it does not consist of just translating a specific ingredient, but transferring a culinary and cultural concept to a person who may come from a different background where there is not such a thing. This concept needs to be transferred clearly and accurately -as in the case of most translated texts-, as well as in a mouthwatering way for the customer, making them imagine the dish thanks to the description provided in their language.
Difficult? Indeed, but not impossible.
In the translation industry we are increasingly surprised about the technological solutions offered to translate, such as certain mobile phone applications that guarantee a better stay abroad thanks to their ability to translate a menu by just scanning an image with a phone. We must say that these applications are useful to a certain extent, as they offer translations immediately, however, we must think about their usefulness in a wider way. There are, for example, some basic dishes that can be easily translated (chicken breast, fish and chips…), or international dishes that are so well known that need no translation (Spanish paella, Swiss fondue, Moroccan couscous…) But, what if the dishes are as typical in a certain country, but more elaborate and less known? In the case of the UK, we can think about many different gastronomic terms: BLT, chowder, shepherd’s pie, cullen skink, haggis, nips and tatties… Not to forget those dishes that are less traditional and completely exclusive from a specific restaurant (Heston Blumenthal‘s creativity comes to mind…)
One of our collaborators told us a perfect story that illustrates how difficult it is to translate a menu. She used to have breakfast in a Spanish café, and the company in charge of the menu’s design also offered them an English translation of the Spanish menu. Our translator had a quick look at it and it didn’t seem to come from Google Translator. However, she could tell the translator was not professional due to certain details: “magreta” (Spanish marinated fatty pork meat) was translated as “duck breast”, because of the similar Spanish term “magret”. It was a different cut, a different quality, and, of course, a different animal! Our collaborator couldn’t stop thinking about a tourist asking for less pricey duck delicatessen and receiving something closer to spam… Probably that translation came from an English speaker who may not perfectly know Spanish cuisine, and no Spanish native speaker had reviewed the text in order to avoid those types of mistakes and confusions. And these mistakes will certainly be remembered.
As we mentioned and will repeat in our posts, translation does not only consist of transferring words from one language to another, but to transfer concepts or ideas in an accurate way, taking into account that the translation’s reader reaction may be the same as the original text reader’s reaction.
In the case of a menu, a professional translator with a deep knowledge of both cultures is needed, as they need to “explain” the dish and make it appetising to the reader: a delicatessen in a certain culture may sound disgusting for another if not properly described and explained…
A professional must consider different factors to create that perfect restaurant image and properly impress the diner, making them feel that they are taken into consideration even though they do not share the same language and culture. The importance of word of mouth in this sector is immense: a happy customer shares their experience with another potential customer, and these recommendations build the business popularity and success.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of translating a restaurant menu: that link between the business and the customer is extremely important and should be properly considered.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Share it with us!