Anyone who's ever been to the blog Bad Menu knows that problems in menu translation are common. That's because, while foot coverings can be shoes and a warm outer garment can be a coat no matter what the local language says, there are many differences in the foods we eat in different places with different languages. Local ingredients and traditional cooking methods aren't so easy to translate. And often what a dish has always been called doesn't really describe it to someone who is unfamiliar with it.
A related problem is that food names or terms often have positive associations in one culture, but nowhere else. Cubans love ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish whose name literally translates to “old clothes”), Mexicans enjoy tacos sudados (literally “sweaty tacos”), and Moroccans are all about roasted sheep head. In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.
“Foods are frequently so culture-specific that it’s difficult to transfer the idea effectively,” says Jim Beason, a translator based in Strasbourg. “A bit like translating political satire from one country to the other—you understand the words, but your lack of cultural context means that it’s not funny at all.”
There are other problems, such as the French tendency to name a dish after its texture, while Americans want to know what's in it. Read about the many ways menu translations can go wrong, with plenty of examples, at Atlas Obscura. After you read it, you'll be craving some of that French custard with meringue and caramel sauce.
(Image credit: Blake Olmstead/Atlas Obscura)