at 35,000 Feet: The World of Airline Menus
specialized form of translation brings food, technology and
project management together
will always be a demand for in-flight meals, but the
delivery of those meals is changing. And menus are evolving
to match these changes. As the diversity of the flying
public increases, so do the menus.
now find formal, printed menus with gourmet cuisine
moving primarily toward the higher classes of service.
Fast-food-style menus common on low-fare carriers have
moved to in-flight magazine pages or laminated cards.
Some carriers have moved the menu to online systems.
Still others are pioneering pre-flight ordering, thereby
allowing maximum flexibility in dining and necessitating
online delivery of the menu long before flight time.
future of airline menus is moving toward divergence
rather than convergence. Time-to-market is decreasing
as the menus are increasingly offered to passengers
pre-flight. At the same time, with passengers choosing
their meals with increasing notice, catering will have
additional time to prepare meals, even if the menus
must be set much longer in advance.
carriers, particularly in Europe, tend to offer a laminated
menu, brightly colored, upbeat and busy, with the appearance
and content similar to a cheery fast-food restaurant.
Other times, the menu is a page of the in-flight magazine.
Of course, it’s food-for-purchase, and, no, you
can’t keep that menu — or the in-flight
magazine. Both will be collected before you exit.
technology advances, so does the delivery of the airline
menu. Heiarii Robson, a purser for Air France based
in Papeete, Tahiti, says, “ANA, a Japanese carrier,
has a channel on its in-flight entertainment system
with the menu.” Other times, the opposite is true:
“Once aboard an Air New Zealand flight from Papeete
to Rarotonga and on to Auckland, the purser announced
the menu over the PA.”
been a while since I’ve seen an airline menu.
It sounds almost quaint to talk about it since, in the
United States and Europe at least, you’re lucky
even to get a meal these days, much less a presentation
that involves a printed menu. About the closest most
airlines come is the printed napkin with some advertising.
being one of my passions, I take note when an airline
provides a menu. A printed menu is classy. It conveys
a message of a higher standard of service. It evokes
the past when air travel was an event you dressed up
for and looked forward to. And it holds the promise
of at least a decent meal, if not more.
On the rare occasions when I have found a printed menu
on a flight, it was almost always an international flight,
mainly in first or business class. A few non-US carriers
still provide them in coach class, mostly on long flights
between continents. When I encounter a printed menu
on an international flight, I check the translation
(if there is one), take note of the entrees, the order
in which things are served and even the paper on which
it’s printed. I am a little obsessive, of course,
but I go to these lengths in the name of research on
localization. Sometimes, anyway.
collected from Air France and Thai Airways flights.
I don’t think I’m alone in this dark world
of aerial culinary compulsive disorder as there are
at least a few people and sites out there that are as
afflicted as I.
started my collection with the Air France Concorde menus
and the UTA ones,” Robson says. “My most
favorite ones are those by the famous French haute
couture [fashion designer] Christian Lacroix Concore,
with menus representing America, Oceania, Africa, Asia
and Europe. I have framed them, and they look like real
artwork! An haute couture designer designing
the menu covers, in an haute couture aircraft
— the famous Concorde — featuring food designed
by the celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse! Now that’s
a trio of eminent people worthy of a museum.”
Robson’s enthusiasm brims: “I keep collecting
them and just bought a UTA menu that was given onboard
the defunct carrier’s DC-10 on its short-lived
route from New York to the French provinces (Toulouse,
Bordeaux, Marseille, Nice, Lyon). A rare menu indeed.”
Then there is the Airline Meals website (http://www.airlinemeals.net),
run by a Dutch fellow named Marco who started off by
photographing meals served on his way to Turkey to visit
his girlfriend so he could show people back home the
Turkish food. That site now claims to have more than
three million visitors, 13,000 pictures, meals from
nearly 460 different airlines — and to receive
more than 200 new meal pictures per month.
Airline Meals you can find, of course, those 13,000
pictures of airline food, in addition to pictures of
some kitchens that produce the food, links to articles
about airline food and even a collection of pictures
of airline menus — 262 of them. The site is prominent
enough to have been featured on CNN and in The Wall
Street Journal, The New York Times and
is a host of “traditional” menus that are
beautifully done, replete with original artwork, that
seem to be printed on a cardstock. These menus are filled
with appetizing and creative descriptions of meals,
ranging from various regional specialties to the standard
French-inspired “international” cuisine.
In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a menu that
doesn’t include this “international”
French-inspired cuisine, usually consisting of a fish
or meat covered in a pepper sauce, cream sauce or some
other kind of sauce, a vegetable and a starch. “International”
is a staple fare, complete with untranslated French
terms such as entrecôte, concassée
the French, however, lies a new world of “half-translations”
as I call them, where the original word is “half-adopted”
into English. For example, it’s not unusual to
find terms such as chayote squash, zucchini
squash, funghi mushrooms, chile peppers,
chorizo sausage and other redundant terminology
including my favorite, cheese-filled quesadillas.
To me, this is the cutting edge of localization —
the gray area where the local and the international
vaguely intersect. The terminology is known but not
well understood, so we find that the “foreign”
term is defined by its English meta-category, such as
squash, mushroom, sausage and so on, preceded or followed
by the original term in the source language. It likely
won’t be long before we find meat-stuffed tortilla
tacos, French haricots verts green beans and maybe even
seaweed-wrapped nori rolls.
are usually flowery in their language, reflecting the
high standards and sophistication that is supposed to
accompany the meal. Localizing these menus requires
a knack for reproducing this puffery in an appetizing
and elite manner, sometimes compromising comprehension
in the interest of maintaining the mystery and intrigue
of the menu. I think that’s why the odd unintelligible
French term remains, as, I suppose, the glitterati of
food-dom are intended to know these terms as members
of the international elite who eat things that are tournée,
velouté or émincé
with some kind of regularity. Or, perhaps, baguette
au boeuf émincé just sounds better
than hamburger on a bun, especially when served
with tomatoes concassée instead of ketchup.
translated my first airline menu on April 1, 1998. I
didn’t really give it much thought at the time.
It was just a small project for TAP Air Portugal, if
memory serves, for flights from Lisbon to Johannesburg,
to be translated into Afrikaans. I thought it was a
one-time gig, but the menus kept coming — and
still do — mostly from what I thought was just
an odd little translation agency in tiny, decidedly
residential Carlstadt, New Jersey, perhaps with cats
lazing about the office. I grew up near Carlstadt and
had an aunt in nearby Hasbrouck Heights. The area is
largely a collection of suburban, affluent bedroom communities
of New York.
Carlstadt, however, is the headquarters of O’Sullivan
Menu Publishing, which translates and prints more
than 72 million menus into 54 languages each year.
And they’ve been doing this since 1962.
Today, O’Sullivan has 80 employees, and
with printing facilities in the United States
and United Kingdom, the company is one of the
leaders in menu publishing worldwide.
Menu publishing is much more complex than it appears
on the surface. Menus have to be printed and delivered
to the right airport at the right time and for
the right flight. Even if a menu is standardized
for all flights, when it is localized, the complexity
returns because the menu must be in the right
languages for the right flights. It cannot be
assumed that only two languages are involved,
either. I remember a flight from Los Angeles to
Johannesburg, changing in Kuala Lumpur, where
the menu was in English, Malay and Chinese on
the first leg — it stopped in Taipei —
and Malay, English, Afrikaans and Spanish on the
second leg. The flight was to continue from Johannesburg
to Buenos Aires. I think I still have this menu,
now 13 years old, in a drawer.
“fast-food takeout” style menu
offers food for purchase in English and Dutch
the complexity of printing, translating and delivering
the right menus to the right flight at the right airport
means that airlines must evaluate whether they prefer
to handle this difficulty themselves or outsource the
menu “program” to a third party. O’Sullivan
provides just such a service.
is even specific software for the industry, products
such as CAlibre and MenusOnDemand, which provide, among
other things, content and information management, along
with a common interface between an airline and all the
parties involved in the menu process, from choice of
ingredients to printing, translation and delivery.
important aspect of airline menu translation is that
the food descriptions have to be localized so as to
be appetizing. You probably wouldn’t be tempted
by bottom-feeding North American lakefish steamed
with stinkweed, but epazote-infused catfish
au vapor might sound attractive. The “appetizing”
variable in menu translation sometimes means that a
choice is made not to translate the entrée and
to use the description area, if there is one, instead
to convey the tastiness of a dish.
these same lines, even a “simple” term can
create confusion. Grouper, flounder
and mahi mahi may seem pretty familiar in the
United States, but they may be unheard of elsewhere.
Grouper is, more accurately, a Caribbean sea
bass. Flounder is a variety of plaice, often
called “American plaice” in Europe. Mahi
mahi isn’t always as Hawaiian as it sounds.
It also favors the Caribbean, where it’s also
called dorado or even dolphin. A winter
flounder is also known as a lemon sole.
The same is true of cuts of meat, where a “filet”
could be just about anything and a milanesa
is just a thin slice of (often breaded) beef.
The Importance of Accurate Translation
Marton, a seasoned project manager at O’Sullivan,
provides some examples of the importance of the accuracy
of the translation: “A translator misunderstood
fanned zucchini and translated it as ventilated
zucchini; expressions such as Russian salad,
Cuban sandwich and French Fries can
pose great problems because outside of the United States
these items are referred to in a completely different
“Chefs also like to use French or Italian expressions,”
she says, “which might be difficult to transcribe
— into Chinese or Japanese in particular —
if written incorrectly.” She offers the example,
“ricotta saltata instead of ricotta
salata — the client insisted on using saltata,
which means sauteed/jumped, while salata
means salted.” In this instance, if
saltata gets translated, it is important to know
exactly what the dish is, regardless of English inaccuracies,
or maybe just leave the term in Italian as given, and
insisted on, by the client.
menu from a Hawaiian flight incorporates island-style
Marton goes on to say that file conversion presents
problems at times because many languages are not supported
in QuarkXPress. Arabic, Chinese and Japanese are done
in a different system as well.
availability of various freelancers, especially for
‘unusual languages’ also presents a challenge,”
she says, and when a client makes a last-minute change,
all of the affected languages must be turned around
on time. Deadlines are rigid because the menu must,
of course, be on the flight before it departs.
Orla Ryan, technical translator and coordinator for
Fasttranslator.com (unaffiliated with O’Sullivan),
is just such a freelancer based in Dublin, Ireland.
She regularly translates American English menus to Irish
Ryan observes, “It has certainly been a fun project,
and it has had its challenges — coining new words
in Gaelic being one of them — always in consultation
with native speakers and researchers, of course. There
have been cases where I have had to ‘gaelicize’
new words, as no translation existed in Gaelic or perhaps
the word was used in English in an Irish conversation.
I had to gaelicize the word, I would add an accent called
a síne fada (long vowel sound) to a
vowel to facilitate native Irish pronunciation. For
example, mango becomes mangó.
The meaning is still understood. For non-Anglo food
such as Italian and Mexican cuisine, it is usually OK
to use the original word.”
further reports that Forás na Gaeilge (http://www.irish.ie)
has published a comprehensive glossary called Lámhleabhar
Bia & Dí (Food & Beverages Handbook)
to address the ever-growing vocabulary used in Ireland
may have originally been used to encourage restaurants
to use Gaelic in their menus,” she says, “but
I find it extremely useful for my translation work.”
Naqvy, freelance translator and lecturer in English
at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India,
started off translating menus for Austrian Airlines
and Alitalia. He says, “I know that cuisine translations
including wine translation is a major business in some
languages, but in Hindi I haven’t seen it to be
of the earlier menus was for Alitalia,” he recalls,
“and the text contained smoked salmon served
with vegetables julienne and black bread and grilled
and gratinated Mediterranean vegetables
and I was supposed to translate them into Hindi. The
problem in the first line is vegetables julienne
and to a certain extent black bread —
julienne of which vegetables? Or is it just
a mixed vegetable dish? In which case, why not just
cut out julienne and use the term vegetarian
preparation?” The latter term, he says, would
be more suitable to India where vegetarianism is common.
a freelance translator working for a translation agency
that works for Alitalia or works for another agency
that works for Alitalia, I cannot really make Alitalia
understand these finer semantic and nuanced differences,”
Naqvy says. “If, for example, you translated black
bread as kaali double roti in Hindi, probably
nobody would eat it because it would seem as if the
bread had gone so bad and so stale that it became black!!”
solution is to “simply put the term as black
bread transliterated into Hindi and expect that
the end readers who travel on an airline might be rich
enough and might have exposure enough to understand
what it means.” Now that low-fare airlines have
caught on in India and with the economy booming, it’s
not such a safe bet that the passengers will be familiar
with the terminology.
Naqvy recalls that he had transliterated dessert
in Hindi but the translation agency re-translated it
as mishtaan which only includes those sweets
that are sold by a sweet shop and does not include soufflé,
quiche, or even fruit salad and so on. The client replied
that its editor was “an old hand in the cuisine
business and that his versions were liked by the client.”
Menus are tricky, and they require not just knowledge
of the two languages but also a deep sense of localization.
They require the translator to understand how to best
negotiate between cultures, and translating menus requires
knowledge of the semantics of the target language.
“Another difficulty that I encounter while
doing menus,” Naqvy says, “is translating
wines and cheeses. Due to government restrictions
on the import of foreign liquor along with high
prices, not many people, including informed and
knowledgeable translators, may have ever tasted,
seen or heard about many wines or cheeses, much
less understand the subtle nuances and intended
meaning of the flowery language used to describe
the taste of these Western delicacies.”
An Elusive Industry
translation is not only a big industry, but also a rather
elusive and artistic one. The frontline of the airline
industry — the in-flight staff, the ground crew,
reservations and so on — generally have little
or no information about the menus, who decides on them,
who prints them or even where they come from. Those
airlines that responded to my requests for information
either did not know or asked me to write by postal mail
to their catering divisions. In various interviews with
in-flight staff, most were suspicious of my motives,
asking if the translation was bad or if I worked for
the quality control division of their airlines.
What information I did glean, however, was intriguing.
Printed menus seem to be completely outsourced and far
distant from the front line of passenger service. Oddly,
the menus are often no longer distributed and left with
passengers. They are collected after the passenger makes
a decision, much as in a restaurant, and then may be
reused on later flights. If you ask, you can probably
is little “fine print” on a menu —
no clues to where it came from — just the route
on which it is used, using three-letter airport codes
and the two-letter airline code, maybe a date and probably
a part number. A part number is a numerical identification
system, like a bar code without the bars.
the United States, printed menus are only available
in first or business class — and even then, only
on flights exceeding four hours, meaning that only transcontinental
flights have them domestically these days. Internationally,
US-based carriers, as far as I can tell, only offer
printed menus in classes above coach. Foreign carriers
vary, with some still offering printed menus in coach.
menus range from the bland white cardstock with black,
often scripted, writing, to “studies” worthy
of a gallery installation. Air France’s butterfly
series is a stunning collection with close-up, high-quality
photos of the insects in their natural environments.
The airline had other interesting series as well, such
as lithograph-like scenes depicting events of the French
Revolution on the 200th anniversary of the event in
1989; vintage photo equipment; and French book bindings
over the past 500 years. In order to appreciate the
artistry in a series, however, one has to be a frequent
international flyer, log on to Airline Meals or perhaps
visit the Menu Collection of the New York Public Library
— 26,000 (not just airline) menus strong and growing.
who professes to have a huge collection of airline menus,
reports that, sadly, Air France “doesn’t
change the menu covers much in coach anymore.”
He remembers that “for a while we used to give
out menus in coach that were paid for by the different
regions of France, whose cuisine was then featured onboard.
The Regional Tourism Bureaus paid for it and put an
ad about the region on the back cover. Inside, a famous
chef from the region would feature a recipe, such as
in the summer of 1998 when the June menu featured Roquefort
cheese and was titled ‘Summer in the Country of
Roquefort Cheese.’ The recipe in that menu or
as it was labeled, the ‘gourmet idea,’ is
a Roquefort tart!”
of the most unusual menus,” continues Robson,
“was the Air Tahiti Nui First Class menu cover,
made out of tree bark with traditional motifs and a
logo in mother of pearl. I managed to keep one, but
they are usually collected back by the crew.”
The printed airline menu marks an occasion and collecting
them is easier than ever. As I write this article, more
than 100 airline menus are up for bid on eBay, including
a rare handwritten one from Middle East Airlines and
a Currier & Ives lithograph series from erstwhile
Pan Am. As an art form, menus excel; and for the localizer
they are an interesting glimpse into the fineries of
nuanced translation, the challenges of planning and
executing a project, and even the detail-level intricacies
of fonts. Airline menus, however they emerge in the
future, will always provide a fascinating look at the
interaction between language and culture, often on the
from MultiLingual magazine (2006, #76 Volume 16 Issue
8) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,
Tim Altanero is associate professor of foreign languages
at Austin Community College.