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.