It can be very adventurous, even romantic, ordering from a menu in a language you do not understand at all. Unfortunately, the result can be a bit shocking unless you like lamb’s brain and Jerusalem artichoke paste or something too “exotic” for your tastes. On the other hand, to read a menu that is translated frequently results in releasing experience, specifically of tension, laughter or tears.
To explain, starting a restaurant is an expensive affair: kitchen, chefs, waiters, tables, environment, plates, silverware, fire and health licenses, to name a few. Somewhere on the bottom of the list in most places, i.e. last and definitely least, is translation of the menu. A Google search for “funny menu translations” will bring up countless outrageous dishes from China, Arab countries, Europe, except for America where restaurants generally don’t not even bother to translate as “everybody knows English.” Even in my little corner of the Galilee, there is a nice Arab restaurant whose Hebrew translation tells us they roast “Celebs”, which is supposed to be the Hebrew word for quail but misspelled, becomes much famous, or maybe infamous.
When faced with farcical translation, people’s reactions vary. The more pedantic inform the waiter of the error in question, ignoring the fact that the menu was printed three years ago. Those with poor sensitivity or high blood alcohol levels start laughing out loud, which is no more effective but does improve the atmosphere of the table. Professional translators start to carefully examine the menu to find more creative translations to tell their friends. As they say the more, the merrier. The stilted diners notice and move on, completed unfazed by the fractured dish descriptions, like a cab driver noticing that a driver that failed to signal. Chacun a son gout.
The interesting question is why menu translation is often so poor. Budget is one factor. Many restaurants are shoe-string potato budgets. A lack of awareness of the tourist business is another factor. Many owners are unaware how many people do not understand the local lingo. There is also a common false impression that a cousin who got a high grade in English in high school can translate a menu just fine and, moreover, can be paid peanuts (or humus, fish and ships, or whatever the local cheap food is). The causes are numerous.
Regardless the reason, the all-too-common result is linguistic and culinary mayhem. The poor diner has to multitask, i.e., try to understand what is being offered while laughing, openly or not. In any case, it is not wise for a restaurant to be penny wise and pound foolish, spending a fortune on the menu and almost nothing on its translation. For the price you have to pay for the food, the least they can do is to properly inform you of what you are eating!