plte od sashimi with lemon and noodlesBad English translations of foreign menus can provide hours of fun. Just google bad menu translations on Google Images for a guaranteed laugh. Menus can be difficult to translate in any case (see “International Cuisine: The Challenge of Translating Menus”). Moreover, many restaurant and eatery owners, without the money for professional translation, resort to machine translation, dictionaries, and the employee or family member who knows “some English,” if they translate their menus at all. It’s easy to see why bad menu translations are so ubiquitous.

With the Summer Olympics scheduled to come to Japan again in 2020, the Tokyo city government has decided to act early to remedy this problem before droves of tourists arrive to be faced with such delicious sounding choices as “sushi thrown on the lane.” But unlike China, which undertook a big and only partially successful campaign against “Chinglish” signs before the Beijing Olympics, the Tokyo government’s answer to its problem is a helpful online tool.

In January, the government launched a new feature on its Eat Tokyo website intended to help restaurant owners to translate their menus into up to 12 languages. The website, available in 13 languages, already provided tourists with a wealth of information on Japanese cuisine and on local restaurants with multilingual menus. The new tool has a database of almost 6,000 terms, including regional specialties, with translations into English, Korean, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Arabic. This is a major expansion of an earlier project with only three languages and a much smaller database.

The culinary terms in the database are not limited to Japanese cuisine. For instance, the common Spanish menu term “al ajillo” is translated as “Spanish Method of Frying in Garlic Oil.”

And, according to an article in The Asahi Simbun:

In addition to menu translation it offers a set of hints on visitors’ cultural traits and religious practices, as well as a set [of] 35 pictograms meant to indicate the contents of a dish. There are also printable sets of phrases that both customers and restaurant staff can point to when predicaments at the dinner table occur.

Such a website would be incredibly useful in any country.

Hopefully, by 2020, it will be much easier for the influx of Olympics guests from other countries to find menus in their own languages that they can actually make sense of.

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