The mysterious case of the wooden mushrooms

There are many attractions to living in Poland and one of them is the menu translations!

It is always with a sense of excitement that I open a menu wondering what surprises I might find inside or even if I will find the holy grail of a perfectly translated menu from front to back. It’s a bit like like having Christmas over and over again every time you walk into a restaurant.

Most intriguing is the way most people seem to get some rather complicated things right and then slip up with what should be bread and butter translations (excuse the intentional pun).

Here’s a page from the menu of the cafe inside the castle at Nidzica (click for bigger version):

The most obvious amuse bouche, and the reason I took the photo, are the “Herring with wooden mushrooms”, which should probably be (including the bracketed ‘marynowane’) “Herring with preserved woodland mushrooms”. Reading further though you have steak tartar described mouth-wateringly as “raw beef”. True, at least. Then you have the rather awkward “King’s meat” or “King’s fish”, which I suppose should really be something like “Fish in a King’s style” but is actually quite hard for me to translate after so many years of seeing the “po Grecku” or “po something else” plopped on the end of the description.

Finally, my favourite gripe is calling pierogi, “dumplings”! I know this is perhaps the most obvious description but it really doesn’t do them justice. For most English speaking people dumplings (anywhere outside a Chinese restaurant) are big, stodgy, fatty, jabba-the-hutt type things that you don’t want to eat unless you’re about to swim the Baltic sea, naked. Pierogi are not like that, well most of them anyway, so we really do need a better translation for them. I suppose “Polish style dumplings” would be an improvement, or even using the word “ravioli”, which is actually a lot closer than dumplings.

Here’s a shot of a “pierogi” I took at the Star Wars exhibition in County Hall, London. Would you order this from the menu? I thought not!

The bottom line is that ordering food in Poland using the English translations is a hit & miss affair. So much so that I generally refuse the English menu I’m offered and ask for a Polish one. It’s the only way of knowing exactly what I’m ordering.

Bear in mind, these errors exist in every menu throughout Poland. It is not restricted by either class of restaurant or by geography. When I see this in a high quality restaurant I have to wonder how much they spent on printing the fancy menus and just how they would feel if the Polish menu was equally badly described. Surely they would be sending it back to the translator / printer and demanding a recount! Does every restaurateur in Poland have their second cousin who got a ‘B’ in English lessons do the translating for their menu??

I have often thought of starting up a “Menu translation service”. I have no idea how many of these things need translating each year but I’d be prepared to do it for a nominal fee of say 10 PLN per page (+VAT) just for the satisfaction of seeing better menus in restaurants. What do you think, good idea?

Interested in why we were in the castle at Nidzica? Go check out 20 east.

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9 thoughts on “The mysterious case of the wooden mushrooms

  1. wiosanna says:

    While my trip to Germany I noticed the same problem. Although my German is poor it was easier to understand what you can get in German then in English

  2. island1 says:

    My favorite one ever was ‘Peasant grease on dry bread’ presumably a translation of whatever the Polish for ‘bread and dripping’ is.

    Re the menu translation service, I’ve driving my better half crazy with this idea for the past two months. Not just menus, but any short information document that needs polishing up before it goes in front of tourists and the like: pamphlets, notices, posters etc. I really think there’s something in it: a website where you can upload your document and get a cleaned up version back within 24 hours for a triffling fee.

  3. guest says:

    In the next months millions of Polish waiters should come back to Poland and THEN you will get “Queen-Oxford-upper class-English” menus ! :D

  4. darthsida says:

    Scatts, re 10 PLN per page (+VAT)

    The problem with “wooden mushrooms” is something a native could tackle, yes. But what about things that don’t go in both cultures? What would you do with, say, ‘toad-in-the-hole’ if you wanted to translate some Jethro Tull lyrics into Polish, for instance?

    And ‘pierogi / dumplings’…Scatts, my man, you’re oversimplifying this:
    Dumpling may mean
    — “kluch” (see ‘Scottish clootie dumpling’ in Pratchett’s “Men at Arms”)
    — “kluska” (with variants “kluski na parze”, “kluski polskie”, “kluski śląskie” and subvariants)
    — “kopytka” (no singular) [it’s not the same as “kluski”, and bear in mind, ‘kopytka włoskie’ are gnocchi]
    To name, yes, a few.

    Pierogi can be (1) leniwe, (2) ruskie, (3) z mięsem, to name the majors, and ‘pierogi’ are not ‘pierożki’, of yet another name(s), and yet more local variants (ravioli, Chinese won-tons, Russian pelmeni) What about “uszka”? What about “kołduny / kałduny”? And so on. And so on.

    I made a dictionary once: cuisine, food, liquors, drinks, utensils, you get it all, 3.000 entries. A long time’s work. To be paid back, a would-be-contract said, 1,30 zł (130 groszy) net per copy of the book [and only if sold]. Well, I’m not Mother Theresa and you’re not going to get my dic.

    It’s not me moaning about oh so cruel cruel world BUT pointing out no one seems to give a damn about ‘wooden mushrooms’ and subtleties of menus. A damn strong enough to make you 10 PLN+VAT richer that is. It’s just my educated guess, so you may as well go on with your marketing.

  5. darthsida says:

    => Island

    It’s not that I would need to discourage you (again) from making a serious biz, but: WHO would your target customer be?

    Re: ‘bread and dripping’

    Sounds like ‘chleb ze smalcem’, but ‘smalec’ is lard, but not any lard — some orthodox speakers would say. [‘Grease’ is tłuszcz, excluding barani grease (which is suet) and there’s tallow yet, obviously]

    My another point is then: a master of the English menuspeak, what about your competence to know what the Polish author should have in mind?

    PS An exercise for the not-too-faint-hearted. Provide English equivalents for kawiarnia, kawiarenka, kafejka, kafeteria, piwiarnia, piwiarenka, piwnica ratuszowa, ogródek piwny, bar, pub, bar mleczny, karczma, tawerna, gospoda, oberża, zajazd, restauracja, restauracyjka, arenda, austeria, kantyna, karawanseraj, bistro, bufet, centrum gastronomiczne, kompleks gastronomiczny, szynk, garkuchnia, pijalnia (~ czekolady, ~ piwa ~ wód), hostel, hotel, motel, jadłodajnia, mesa, stołówka, stołówka studencka ogródek restauracyjny, pierogarnia, piwnica, piwosklep, refektarz, saloon, szynkwas, traktiernia, winiarnia [in the 2nd of its 3 meanings], and many other places when you mow your chow.

  6. michael farris says:

    Taking a stab at the menu posted:

    Kasztelan salad (folowed by ingredients)

    Royal fish (Fish royale?)

    The King’s cut (I’m not gonna touch “king’s meat” in any way!)

    Steak tatare (calling it raw beef is kind of disgusting, not as bad as king’s meat, but …)

    Herring with forest mushrooms

    Meat dumplings

    Russian dumplings (ingredients)

  7. island1 says:

    Darth: easy: Pub, Cafe, Restaurant, Exclusive Restaurant

  8. darthsida says:


    your translation is impeccable, of course. Any next time the English reader ventures into a Polish facility of mniam and mlask, should be given an equally impeccably translated menu:

    Chow, Drink, Chow Mein, Expensive Chow.

  9. Paweł says:

    Once a Canadian friend told me about one funny menu translation she once heard of. It described “Bitki po chłopsku” as “Meat beaten in the village men’s fashion”.
    It was way funnier to me when she explained what “to beat meat” means :)

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