Travelers' app makes sense of foreign menus


September 9, 2011

Purdue University's new app could keep unsuspecting travelers from ordering dishes such as gusano, without knowing what they are

Purdue University's new app could keep unsuspecting travelers from ordering dishes such as gusano, without knowing what they are

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Once when I was visiting Montreal, I went into a restaurant and discovered that the menu was entirely in French. Not wanting to admit that I couldn't read the language, I was instead forced to order the only two things I recognized the names of: Caesar salad and calamari. Had smartphones been around at the time, I definitely could have used Purdue University's new food translator app. It not only translates the names of foreign-language dishes, but it also tells you what they are and what's in them.

Still in the developmental stage, the app would ultimately consist of a number of region- and language-specific databases that users would load into their phones, as determined by where they were going. Once the needed database was loaded, the phone wouldn't even need to access the internet to use the app.

Once a user found themselves in a situation where they didn't recognize anything but Caesar salad and calamari, they would open up the app and type in the name of different menu items. A "best possible" translation would be provided, along with pictures of the dish, a list of its ingredients, and other information.

The app could also be useful to people with food allergies, who need to check whether menu items contain things such as peanuts. It can be programmed to provide warnings when certain ingredients are present, along with presenting questions and suggestions (in both languages) that could be discussed with the waiter.

There are certainly already plenty of translation websites and apps available, although the Purdue app has a couple of advantages. Besides providing more than just a literal translation of a dish's name, it is also much quicker and smaller than most translation apps. This is because it was created using a process known as n-gram consolidation, that reportedly improves translation accuracy while markedly reducing database size and increasing search speed. As a result, real-time translations take an average of just nine-hundredths of a second, and the app takes up a total of 9.56 megabytes - regular translation apps can take several gigabytes, by comparison.

So far, a prototype of the app has been optimized for English-speaking iPod touch users traveling in Spain. Based on its encouraging performance, however, additional databases and versions for other iOS and Android devices could be on the way.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I\'ve never had a problem asking the waiter, \"What do you recommend?\" Since waiters make money on tips, they want to make sure the customer likes what they order.

William Lanteigne

If you have a smart phone and an internet connection, google translate is both free and excellent.


To William H Lanteigne the waiter will always recomend what the chef has told him to, ie what is about to go off, or that the kitchen has a over abundance of, being in the trade I would never ask the waiter to recommend a dish.

Gus F

Tabarnaaaaaaaaaak (

Dread Zontar

Some remarks. Unlike in the US, waiters in Europe are paid with a salary and additionally some tips, depending on the client and not the \'tips only\' system as in the US. Google translation is based on Systran (the actually best, but still largely limited translation system), many times it produces quite bad translations. It is \'interpreted\' by many people - as the large majority of US citizens - as excellent. But it is not. Myself I am fluent on a daily basis (reading, writing, speaking) in five languages (Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish) with its inevitable shortcomings. Every Google translation needs lots of corrections and reworks, but it is a very convenient \'word\' translator. I guess, this Purdue application goes a long way further than Google translate. And finally, in Europe or elsewhere, the large majority of people don\'t speak at all English, so the Spanish President Zapatero.

Jan Sansen

Sometimes it is impossible to \"type\" in the dish name...If you are traveling in Greece, the Ukraine, China, or Japan, the alphabet in these countries to not have the letters of western keyboards...what I would like is an app that allows me to snap a photo of the dish, then have the phone OCR what it is and then look up what the dish entails and give me the information in english...THIS would be something...not this stupid little translate app...Heck, you can google ANY food dish and get something back that you can use...But try ordering food when the menu is in hieroglyphics!


Since the above article was written, there is a new iPhone app - Translate A Menu - that is designed to translate food and restaurant menus to English. It has more lots more terms than a standard dictionary and has smart search (type just a couple of characters of that dish you don't recognise, and matching results come up). See

Elise Taylor
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