Lost in the translation? Why a conscientious menu language is important | Modern restaurant management


The last time I was in Madrid a friend and I browsed the English menus at a popular tapas restaurant. I also requested the Spanish menu. As a food translator, I know that seeing the original is often the best way to decipher what is proposed.

As I salivated over my old favorites, my non-Spanish speaking friend asked me, “What is this world famous potato and egg dish?” Hash browns? “

It turned out to be a Spanish tortilla.

The translation was not incorrect: Spanish tortilla is indeed made from potatoes and eggs, but so are countless other Spanish dishes. The English menu lacked context which we only gleaned from looking at the Spanish.

Back in the United States, when it comes to represent foods from other cultures, the stakes are higher. We risk not only a confused tourist, but a distorted view of an entire culture. Krishnendu Ray, president of food studies at New York University, argues that cooking and sharing foods from other cultures is an act of translation. If so, then we need to rethink restaurateurs not as “simple” creators, but as translators.

The name of a dish is more than just a marketing appeal: what we call a thing determines how we perceive it, how we interact with it and even its fate.

As a chef and writer Jenny dorsey explains: “The nomenclature is undoubtedly the most visible – and therefore the most contested – aspect of the representation of foods. To have the capacity to name something is a power, and to proliferate that name widely is an influence. “

Putting context and origin on the menu we can honor other cultures, recognize diasporas and expand cultural understanding.

Unsurprisingly, many examples of restaurants that already take a conscientious approach are owned by members of the culture whose food they serve.

cuban restaurant Pambiche in Portland, Oregon, highlights the origins of its food by leaving the names of dishes in Spanish and associating them with poetic English. The berenjena con coco dish is described as “a roasted American eggplant simmered in a savory coconut pepper sauce flavored with lime, fresh herbs and Carta de Oro rum”.

This bilingual approach gives primacy to the traditional dish while making it accessible to English speakers. It also allows English speakers to order “aubergine” instead of “berenjena con coco”. A waiter repeating the name of the Spanish dish reintroduces the context of the food and makes the origins of the dish not only visible, but audible.

This bilingual menu style encompasses two fundamental translation strategies: domestication and foreign. Domestication involves taking a concept from another culture – in this case, food – and making it familiar to a new audience. Foreign means preserving the culture and the language of origin. To paraphrase translation scholar Lawrence Venuti, domestication brings the dish home, while the stranger sends dinner abroad.

But there are degrees of contortion (and distortion) when it comes to inserting a dish into a hole shaped like another language and culture. Consider, for example, the rebranding of haldi doodh – a spicy milk drink native to India – as “golden milk. This domestication defaults to the white English-speaking experience and erases the origins of the drink. On the contrary, our adoption of the Korean word kimchi, instead of calling it ‘fermented cabbage,’ is an example of how the alien respects the origin of a food.

It should be noted that neither domestication nor alien is inherently “good” or “bad”. Both can be used to retain the essence of a dish as it travels from one linguistic and cultural reality to another. Indeed, they can even be used – often to their best effect, as on the Pambiche menu – in tandem.

Preserving the original language is a simple way to honor the culture, but it is not the only one. Here are several other ways to contextualize foods:

1. Include cultural and historical details. Mexican torta shop Guero does so by adding a brief nod to the origins of his torta ahogada: “Our version of the classic Jaliscan.” . . . Messy and spicy! ”

2. Provide a glossary or pronunciations. French bakery Honored Saint offers a tip next to the kouign-amann in his pastry case: “Pronounced kween-amón”.

3. Use words from the culture of origin. One way to do this is to use traditional dish names, as in the case of Pambiche berenjena con coco. Other restaurants intentionally forgo explanations: Chinese fast food chain Junzi’s menu lists ingredients like furu without an explanation. Owner Lucas Sin says making guests curious and getting them to ask questions is the essential.

4. Include photos or illustrations. Some restaurants, like XLB, use photographs or illustrations as visual translations (think of the tiki bar menu, problems with tiki bars next to).



5. Offer menus in several languages, while preserving cultural identity. Some restaurants, like the Tapas Bar in Madrid, opt for separate menus in different languages. But as with the “famous potatoes and eggs”, there are limits, especially when the translation is incomplete or ambiguous. The combination of domestication and outsider can help balance accessibility and cultural context.

6. Offer a single bilingual menu. This integrated presentation is a reminder that food exists in another culture that has its own language and that it invites guests into that culture. Another advantage of this approach is the inclusion of guests who speak the language of the kitchen. A professional translator who is familiar with the food and the languages ​​and cultures in question can help create an efficient and accurate bilingual menu.



We have choices about how we represent foods from non-majority crops. By providing context, we bear witness to other cultures, normalize their existence and strive for pluralism.

Until we live in this pluralistic and inclusive world where cultures coexist, where we make room for chefs from different origins and where no cuisine is relegated to the aisle of “ethnic foods”, our task is to create such a world. The way language determines, if not creates, the reality in which we live makes it a ripe starting point.

By paying attention to the origin of a dish and the language used to describe it, restaurateurs have the opportunity to serve as thoughtful shepherds guiding the safe passage from one culture and language to another. After all, a dish under another name is not the same dish at all.


About Imogene T. Bishop

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