Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Restaurants Should Never Trust Machine Translation

A few days ago, my family was planning to go out for dinner in celebration of a special occasion. By the end of the day, we were all so exhausted that it sounded like a much nicer idea to just order some Chinese food and relax at home instead. We pulled out our stack of carryout menus and found the one for what is widely considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in town. The restaurant is actually owned and operated by a Chinese family, and the food is great - none of those tasteless, oily noodles you might find elsewhere. However, there was just one problem: the menu.

If you're at least somewhat adventurous when it comes to cuisine, then you've probably encountered a poorly translated menu before, be it at home or in a foreign country while you're on vacation. Sometimes there's just an item or two on the menu that sounds a bit off, like the time I discovered "sawdust" listed as a dessert on a menu in Portugal. Other times, however, the whole menu has clearly been thrown into Google Translate, with a horrible end result.

I'm pretty sure this was one of those times.

I can honestly say that I've never seen such a horribly translated menu before in my life. The issues were seemingly endless, which resulted in lots of confusion as to what we should order, as well as plenty of laughs. Here are some highlights:

A section of the menu in question.
"Ricer & Noodle" and "Beef Lamb": These section headings could easily have been corrected if the menu had been proofread before printing.

"Three Ingredient Potstickers" vs. "Potstickers": I love potstickers. They're one of my favorite items, and I was intrigued by the promise of "three ingredients". However, this translation didn't do the restaurant any favors. It was so ambiguous that I decided not to take the risk, since I didn't want to order potstickers that might be filled with something I don't like, which lost them an additional $4.

"Pine Nuts w. Wheat Gluten & Peppers": I imagine this item doesn't sell very well, given the current popularity of gluten-free diets. Based on its name, I envision chopped pine nuts and bell peppers in some sort of mushy paste, perhaps. Even stranger is the fact that this item is listed in the "Seafood" section...

"Fine Shred Potato w. Spicy Capsicum": If you know a bit of Latin, you can figure out that this vegetarian dish has some kind of hot peppers in it, since Capsicum is the plant genus that contains pepper species, but it still doesn't sound very appetizing.

"Crab Yolk & Bean Curd": Since when do crabs have yolks? Or does this contain crab, egg yolk, and bean curd?

On second thought, I suppose this adorable lamb wouldn't need
a thin wrap to keep warm since it has its own fleece!
"Lamb in Thin Wrap": This item was my personal favorite. It's probably some sort of thin rice wrap with lamb in it, but I imagined an adorable lamb with a thin shawl draped over its back to keep it warm.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The menu was a bit of a disaster. After spending ages looking it over, laughing, and trying to decide if we were feeling adventurous enough to order various poorly worded items, we finally made our relatively safe selections.

The food was indeed delicious as usual (including the potstickers), but I still felt let down by the menu. I love trying new things, but I also like to know what I'm eating, which is why I ended up ordering beef lo mein as my main dish instead of something new and exciting.

I can't help but think that this restaurant and the thousands of others like it who use Google Translate to translate their menus are missing out on great opportunities, both to earn more money and to expand their customers' culinary horizons. The worst translations on these machine-translated menus generally correspond to the most expensive items, since more complex dishes are harder to translate. It's not hard to find translators nowadays (especially with the help of the internet), and the cost of hiring a professional to translate a menu would be relatively small compared to the profits it could lead to in the future!

So if there are any restaurant owners out there, I beg you, please hire a professional to translate your menu instead of using a machine translation. The next time an adventurous diner visits your restaurant, they'll be much more likely to try your finest items if you're marketing them with well-worded translations.