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Translation & Allergies: When 'the meal took my breath away' isn't a cause for celebration

January 21, 2018


We've all seen bad menu translations. The worst ones often tell you absolutely nothing about what you are about to receive. For some, this can be exciting. For others, it can be problematic.

I'd like to give you an example. It is a true story, and it happened to me.

More than 17 million Europeans and up to 15 million Americans have food allergies.  



It all took place on a quick weekend break in Europe. It was an oppressively warm day, with no cloud cover. I was taking a long stroll along the marina with my mother, my friend, and her grandmother. My mother and my friend's grandmother were both returning home on a flight that afternoon. Not being a fan of clothes shopping, while they browsed, I slipped away to pay a visit to a gelato stand.


At the time, I was only aware of a few minor indications that I may have a nut allergy and simply avoided eating them, but I had come prepared. I'd learned the translations for 'I'm allergic to nuts', 'does this contain nuts?' and the translations for several nuts in the local language, and used them with success up to that point in the vacation. I also carried a packet of antihistamine tablets for allergy relief.


However, in spite of all the work I'd put in to avoid a disaster,
one very poorly-described serving of chocolate gelato
turned out to be a silent assassin.


 My theory is that the gelato contained hazelnuts



Within twenty minutes, I felt a strong urge to lie down. I put this down to tiredness and the soaring temperature and brushed it off. We caught a taxi to the airport.


Stepping out of the taxi, I felt like I'd gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.


While waiting for the gate number, I began to feel uneasy. I was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. I'd never experienced such breathlessness before. I reviewed the day's events in my head, searching for the catalyst, until it hit me.


I was drifting into anaphylactic shock.


 The gelato triggered an extreme allergic reaction which required urgent medical attention


I was incredibly lucky that I realised this while at the airport, where my mother was able to quickly find a medical assistance desk to call for help. Shortly after, although, in my struggle to breathe, it felt like an eternity, help arrived. I was hustled into the back of an ambulance, where I was given the shot of adrenaline that saved my life. I am fortunate enough to have never experienced anything as distressing as this, the most serious allergic reaction I'd ever experienced, since. 


And all because of two, poorly-described scoops of gelato.


'You eat to the oven?' 'Papas to the French?'  A poor translation is not necessarily better than no translation. Hire a native speaker to translate your content.

         Photo credit: Moomazza, 2011.



It's no secret that hiring a professional, preferably a native speaker, to translate your menu, product description or food marketing materials shows customers that you care about their customer experience and gives your brand a more professional, reputable image. However, we do not talk enough about how translations by professional translators protect customers with allergies and dietary requirements, letting them know exactly what is in their food so that they can make informed decisions about what they can and cannot eat, and making their experience much easier in the process. 



About the Author


Ashlie Simpson is the founder of Simpson Language Services, which offers a broad range of services, including translation, proofreading, and translation quality-checking, working from four languages into English: Spanish, French, Brazilian Portuguese and Romanian.


Find out more:




Tourism and gastronomy translations and translation quality-checking

Translations of tourism, gastronomy and marketing texts by a native speaker with a Master's degree in Translation. If your text has already been translated into English, Simpson Language Services can help bring it up to a professional standard.


List of international food allergy organisations (external)

Some of the organisations provide advice for tourists with allergies who are due to visit other countries.


The Amy May Trust: Amy's story (external)

While on vacation, Amy was assured several times that the meal that she had chosen was free from all nut products, but she ended up in intensive care.




Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis, 2012 | Public Declarations.


Food Allergy Research & Education. Facts and Statistics  




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