News | 19.02.2010

What’s on the menu in the world of culinary translation?

Translations and language issues in the world of food have been making headlines recently: a food App for the iPhone has been taking the culinary world by storm and Google’s image to text translation facility – Google Goggles – was showcased at the Mobile World Congress. Unfortunately, other linguistic renderings have been missing some of their vital ingredients!

The FoodGuide App has been developed for the iPhone by ditter.projektagentur GmbH. According to it boasts a translation facility in English, German and Spanish; detailed consumer reports; information about European foods and photographs. Nine months in the making, it quickly became a best seller and was voted the best App in Apple’s Lifestyle category. Over 1,500 products are listed in five languages – including their scientific names. Once downloaded, no Internet connection is required, enabling food enthusiasts worldwide to enjoy reviews, translations and images whilst on the move.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this month, Google showcased their new prototype of image to text translation called Google Goggles in a demonstration which displayed how a menu written in German could be instantly translated into English. According to the new Google Translate Blog, the technology works through a connection from a smartphone’s camera to an optical character recognition (OCR) engine, which accesses Google Translate and in turn, provides a translation of the text contained in the image. Currently only German and English languages are supported, but the aim is to make this service available in all of the 52 languages offered by Google Translate.

Not exactly a mistranslation, but rather a case of non-translation came to light when the Arizona Daily Sun reported on linguistic events at the Navajo Nation Reservation: an area covering over 27,000 square miles in the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The Navajo language does not have a strong written history, but is spoken in the home by over half of the 250,000 population. However, when many Navajo families became stranded due to heavy snow at the beginning of February and 39,000 freeze-dried food packages were delivered, the food labels and preparation instructions were entirely in English! As no translations were provided, many of the elders who do not understand written English refused to eat the meals. In such extreme weather conditions, the decision not to provide a simple translation could have been fatal.

Spanish-American food relations have also taken a bit of a battering with the news that elBulli (the world-renowned Catalan restaurant famous for its celebrity chef – Ferran Adrià – and molecular gastronomy) was to close its doors permanently and become a foundation for professional chefs. The international press soon picked up on this story and news of the closure quickly spread in food circles worldwide. However, Mr Adrià subsequently gave an interview to Spanish newspaper El País stating that the New York Times who originally broke the story had ‘misunderstood’ him and that the restaurant would at some point in the future be serving meals to the public. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding this misinterpretation and whether it stemmed from language-related issues. It was, nevertheless, a story which shook the food world.

The fusion of language and cuisine has certainly come to the fore internationally in recent months and diners, critics and linguists alike are wondering what will be on the menu for 2010!

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