Menu translation bloopers: 'cheep cheese' and other gems

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The night some friends of mine came in from New York, we went to one of my Paris haunts where the food is good and the service friendly and attentive.

Hearing my friends speaking English, the owner asked: ” Voudraient-ils des menus en anglais ?” Well, sure, that would make my life easier, I wouldn’t have to translate.

He distributed the menus, poured the wine and water and left us to plan our meals. As I was debating between the scallops and the lamb, I heard this rumble of giggles swelling from all sides, soon giving way to full-blown good humored laughter. There was nothing funny about my menu in French, so I grabbed one of my friend’s. Indeed, as this study points out, the quality of menu translations has gone south in the last quarter-century.

Cheep cheese anyone?

And how about some “cumcumber” with that?

And some “chicken breast stove” after that?

menu blooper extract1

The 8-page menu was filled with such pearls and assorted mistakes. I went over to the owner and offered to make suggestions on some words unknown in the English language.

“My sister-in-law lived in London for several months and translated the menu for us. Maybe you don’t know these words because they are British and you speak American,” said he.

“Perhaps,” I replied, “but even in London, there is no such thing as cheep cheese, unless you’ve gotten a bargain of sorts, and no one would be caught dead wearing or eating a cumcumber. You might want to think about having it reviewed, it leads to much confusion and, as you’ve noticed, laughter.

By the way, can I borrow it over night? I have a blog that deals with language and communication issues…”

When we getting ready to leave, the owner came to our table with a tray of after dinner drinks, a full set of menus under his arm, a bottle of red wine and a plea that I help him remove some of the humorous elements that cast umbrage on his cuisine.

He’s gotten the message:  Just because your brother/sister-in-law/friend has spent some time in a country, that does not make him or her a native speaker or a proficient translator –  especially when relying on Google Translate.


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Comments: 7

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  • Love these ones… and unfortunately it happens a lot in French restaurants!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Patricia Lane, La Rassegna. La Rassegna said: ► Menu translation bloopers: ‘cheep cheese’ and other gems: The night some friends of mine came in from New York… […]

  • Wow, it really makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?? I think that restaurant menus are a particularly great example of the power of translation, because even the items that are semi-correctly translated (i.e. “mashed spicy tomato”) just don’t really “sing” the way they would if the translation were stronger. It really takes a skilled native speaker to get the connotations right; for example here in the US, “mashed” paired with anything but “potatoes” makes the dish sound like baby food. Better to go with “spicy tomato relish” or “spicy puree of tomatoes and herbs” or something like that. Thanks Patricia!

  • Priceless! I gave up on such efforts here in Germany years ago, because the locals simply can’t conceive that they make laughingstocks of themselves even when their customers fall out of their chairs holding their sides. Please drink a toast to this wise restauranteur for me!

  • @Corinne – You are absolutely right, and that’s what I said to the owner when I returned — menus are not ingredient lists, they are titillating descriptions (or should be). Getting to simple accuracy is a good first step though!
    @Kevin – Indeed, after the slightly defensive language variant argument, he realized it was in his interest to listen. I returned the menus covered in red in, with my card, suggesting he call before sending anything to the printer! He said it was important to him – “most non French patrons use English to communicate” in his restaurant. He’s learning!

  • As a translator specialized in food and wine, some things are difficult for even a native speaker to find – recently I just couldn’t find “joyeuses” to translate an obviously rustic recipe. Even the La Régalade cuisine chef was puzzled – until I discovered an obscure recipe for “joyeuses” specifying the need for: fresh beef testicles (don’t think I’ll be ordering that, personally). I also recall figuring out “foie gras mendiant”; pastry chefs stud hardening chocolate with raisins and nuts to make “mendiants”, and indeed, this cuisine chef was doing something similar to foie gras.

    But ô, the glory of Caesar Salad With Its Stale Bread (Salade caesar aux croûtons) or my personal failed translation favorite, Flyed Lice (fried rice). Such flights of imagination provide an amusing start to a convivial evening, do they not?