Oh yes, you travellers out there know exactly what I’m talking about.
Have you ever sat down with the hopes of ordering a savoury meal, just to look at the menu and find it translated into nonsensical gibberish that’s supposed to be English? Or, worse yet! Have you ever seen something translated that makes perfect sense, just not in that context? It can lead to some snickering, pointing, picture taking, or even to some extremely loud, tears-streaming-down-your face, snot-pouring-out your nose guffawing. Did I paint a lovely picture for you? I certainly hope so.
Conjure up the image of an Alpine-style restaurant tucked away in a small town in the Dolomites, a summer evening, and a family of four. The father, a native Italian speaker, is graced with an Italian menu. Mom and kids are saddled with the English translated ones. The teenage daughter (yours truly), peruses the menu and suddenly starts to cackle like the Schlern Witch (a legendary little hag from the area).
“What the heck’s so funny, Sarah?” Dad asks.
“I’ll have the…” I lay my menu down on the table to start pointing, not doing a very good job of it because my finger is heaving up and down with my laughter.
“The…” Still cackling.
“The…!” Gasp. Laugh. Heave. Cackle. Gasp. Gasp. Snort. (Whoops!) Cackle. Laugh. Gasp.
“Spit it out, will ya sis?” Commands my brother.
“I’ll have the chunks of meat on a twig!” I say as fast as I can, trying to get it out between the heaving and laughing.
“The what!?” Dad looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Chunks of meat on a twig!”
Upon further inspection of the Italian language menu, we found out that the menu was offering spiedini, known in English as shish kabobs. What did they use, the Rustic Hiker’s Guide to the English Language to translate that one?
And that’s not even the worst of it…
Picture a cozy restaurant in Belgium. It’s fall, there’s a fire in the fireplace, and it seems like just the right kind of night to try a something new. Mom and I flip through the fifteen pages of Belgian beer before we finally get to the non-liquid part of the menu.
“Oh Sarah. Oh gosh. What the heck do you think this is?” Mom tries to stifle her laughter as she points to one of the main dishes, a “specialty of the house”, or so they say.
Mom snickers in response.
“What the heck kind of place did you bring me to, Mom!? They wanna talk about cruelty to cows and stuff when they slaughter them…Let them come here! I’m getting a mental image of a poor, poor little chicken being flung around by a windmill!”
I do my best impression of a panicked chicken tied to the arm of a windmill, and it’s the end of Mom’s self control. Further inspection of the French language menu showed the dish to be “Vol-au-vent”, a little puffed pastry thingee that’s served with some type of thick chicken sauce over it. Sounds kinda good!
Not only can you encounter this type of linguistic creativity on menus (although I have found that they’re the most common displays of transfigured translations) but you’ll see it on signs in store windows, on official documents, on roadsigns and just about anywhere that tries to cater to tourists. Good-quality translations are few and far between, so get used to muddling through the made-up words, fancy spellings, misuses and syntactical creativity. Just think of it as another “cultural experience” while abroad!
See if you can spot the interesting translations in this French menu: