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Translation App Deciphers Foreign-Language Menus

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If you're watching out for peanuts or other allergens, traveling abroad can be a scary prospect. How will you know that your dish doesn't contain peanuts if you're ordering off a menu in a foreign language?

Researchers at Purdue University have created a cell phone app that translates foreign-language food menus. It is intended for those who must follow a restricted diet, such as those with food allergies. Mireille Boutin, a professor who worked on the project, says “You type in the menu listing and the application translates it automatically without talking to a server.” According to Boutin, one of the problems of menu translation is that you may still need to ask questions about the contents of the dish. “For example, in German, "Schinken" means ham, but it can be raw ham or cooked ham.”

Before traveling abroad, download the configuration and database specific to that region and language. Then, the app can be used without connecting to the internet. The new application will provide translations, ingredient lists, and even sample pictures of the dish, and display a warning symbol if the dish is likely to contain allergens. It will even suggest questions for the waiter, when appropriate. “Our tests indicate that our system yields a correct translation more often than general-purpose translation engines,” says Boutin.

Boutin also commented on the problems faced by those eating in foreign restaurants. “People who must follow a medical diet are often reluctant to travel for fear of putting their health at risk. Without the ability to understand menus, it is impossible to make informed food choices.” This could lead to dangerous consequences, especially in the case of peanut allergies, where consuming even a tiny amount of peanuts could be fatal.

Though it's only available in Spanish so far, the researchers hope to expand the application for other languages soon. Read more about it at Purdue.edu

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