Restaurant Menu Translation Do’s and Don’ts

Background information, along with context, is always helpful when translating an app, website, document, or any other piece of collateral. In the restaurant industry, it’s a must. With social media and review websites readily accessible, anything funny, ridiculous or terrifying can quickly spread online. And that may not be the kind of virality you want for your business. Here we present some examples of what to do – and what not to do – when it comes to restaurant menu translation.

When Good Intentions Go Wrong

I appreciate when people whose native tongue isn’t English try to impress customers by using English signboards and English translations on their restaurant menus.

However, some restaurant owners and managers do the translations themselves – or they might ask a friend, who is not a translator, to help. As you can see from the Turkish-to-English examples below, using the wrong translation approach can lead to disastrous, and somewhat hilarious, results.

snapshot from turkish restaurant menu_1

It seems as though the person who translated this menu thought it would be better if s/he translated everything from Turkish word by word. Unfortunately, “Slit His Stomach” and “The Bottom of The Boiler” aren’t nearly as appetizing as “Split Aubergines with Meat Filling” or “Pudding with Blackened Surface.

snapshot from turkish restaurant menu_2

On this menu, the translator appears to have literally translated the proper name Nazik into English while keeping Ali. The end result: Ali Gentle. Huh?

Ali Nazik is actually “Eggplant Puree with Yoghurt Served with Ground Meat.

Ala means Beautiful and Nazik means Dish in Arabian – it’s pronounced and written as Ali Nazik in Turkish as it is easier for the Turkish to pronounce that way. Ali is also a male name in Turkish.

So while I can somewhat understand the translator’s confusion, Ali Gentle is far from correct. The dish has nothing to do with gentleness.

snapshot from turkish restaurant menu_3

Translators face many challenges every day. A lack of background information is the culprit in this example. Let’s break it down:

The second dish we can see on this image is Fındık Lahmacun. Fındık means “nut” in Turkish so the translation “sounds” right. In reality, Fındık Lahmacun means “Small-sized Lahmacun.Fındık (nut) is used here to describe the size of the lahmacun in Turkish.

İçli Köfte is, in fact, “Stuffed Meatballs.” But the translator decided to go with the literal translation of içli, which is “sensitive.” Again, the lack of background information on gastronomy caused some trouble for the translator. (This dish is actually very well-known in Turkey, so a quick check with a local might have helped here.)

Çiğ literally means “raw” and taze means “fresh” in Turkish. I have no idea why the translator preferred using “fresh” instead of “raw” when translating Çig Köfte but the result is…not so delicious-sounding. Yes, it can be both raw and fresh (and it must be!) but my rule of thumb is, “There is always a better translation.”

In this post, I tried to explain the challenge translators face when they don’t have enough background information. And what advice do I have for restaurant owners and managers who don’t want to spend the time or money necessary to ensure accurate translations? Be prepared to see a lot of confused looks on your customers’ faces.

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