A new menu translator application allows cell phone and other portable device users to translate foreign-language food menus into English. If you’ve ever eaten at a foreign restaurant, you’re familiar with uncertainty when it comes to figuring out what to eat. This application takes the guess work out of the process, and eliminates the need for the tried and true finger point method of, “I’ll have….That.”
How is this app different from regular machine translators, you might be wondering?
“You type in the menu listing and the application translates it automatically without talking to a server,” said Mireille “Mimi” Boutin, an associate professor in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It only takes a fraction of a second, you don’t need connection to the Internet and it won’t empty your battery.”
“Our tests indicate that our system yields a correct translation more often than general-purpose translation engines,” states Boutin, who specializes in signal and image processing. “Moreover, it does so almost instantaneously. The memory requirements of the application, including the database of pictures, are also well within the limits of the device.”
“The problem with menus is that even if you know the language you may still have to ask questions to clarify what a dish contains,” Boutin said. “For example, in German, “Schinken” means ham, but it can be raw ham or cooked ham. If you are going to eat the ham, you might want to know which.”
The user types the desired dish into a prompt field in the graphical user interface. The text is translated, and the best possible translations are then listed, along with other information, including pictures and ingredients. The user can then browse the multimedia database to obtain more information about the dish or the ingredients. When appropriate, information and questions for the waiter are suggested.
The method could be further developed as a tool for people who have special diets by adding a database of nutritional information.
This application is especially useful for someone who might suffer from a particular food allergy. “People who must follow a medical diet are often reluctant to travel for fear of putting their health at risk,” Boutin said. “Without the ability to understand menus, it is impossible to make informed food choices. In some extreme cases, for example peanut allergies, the consumption of even a minute quantity of certain nutrients can be fatal. In other cases, such as diabetes or congenital metabolic conditions like PKU, the consumption of certain nutrients must be carefully monitored and limited in order to maintain an individual’s health.”
While this makes for a very useful app when needed, I’m not entirely certain it will be able to take into account all the different varieties and chefs’ interpretations of a given dish. Even if the menu description lists the main ingredients of a dish, that chef will most likely use their own spices or special ingredients in order to make it their own. That means each dish can be as varied as the number of restaurants. If someone with a particular allergy relies solely on the app and their waiter (how many times have you ordered something with a special request, only to be brought the regular entree) to assure them their dish is safe, it could spell trouble for the patron of the restaurant whose chef uses a dash of peanut oil or honey in the secret sauce.
But for the regular foodie, unconcerned about life-threatening allergies, I think this app translates into ‘Bon Appetit’.