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To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

Paris, France
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To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

Ever since I had lunch at a restaurant on Thursday, something has been bothering me, so I decided to pose the question here:

If you're having a problem understanding the menu in a restaurant in Paris, would you like someone to help you with the translation or not?

Here's what happened - I was finishing up my meal when a family of 4 Americans sat down next to me. Our tables were very close (Parisian restaurant close) but since I tend to blend in with the locals, I don't think that they recognized me as a fellow American. The teenagers were complaining because they couldn't read the menu and didn't like the options. Meanwhile, I was trying to decide if I should help...but didn't want it to look like I had been eavesdropping, which I wasn't but the tables are so darn close that it's hard not to hear what's going on. Anyway, when the poor mom was having a hard time figuring out the word for "courgette", I decided to offer some assistance. I'm not sure that they were happy to learn that there was an English speaking person next to them and an awkward silence descended on their table. I busied myself with my iphone so that they wouldn't feel uncomfortable and the mom thanked me when I left, but I keep wondering if I should have just let them figure things out on their own.

I'm probably going to find myself in this situation quite often while I'm living in Paris, so should I offer to help or not?

Montreal
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1. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I've been in this situation and would say that it's best to say something right away, or almost, or not at all... to avoid possible embarrassment, and especially if you hear people not getting along/speaking as though no one around understands.

NE Victoria...
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2. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I'd like to be helped if I was struggling with the menu and the language. I've always been grateful when someone has chimed in to help when I've been stuck in a situation not knowing what was happening (a diverted trolleybus in Budapest due to a protest springs to mind...). When faced with foreign menus that are hard to decipher (despite having a phrase book or having tried to learn words beforehand), it's nice to have someone chime in and help out. Part of the experience of travelling, for me.

Inna's probably right though - in most cases, it's "immediately or not at all". Personally, your timing in offering advice wouldn't worry me because I don't tend to discuss private things with my partner when I'm in a public place like a restaurant... But to each their own.

I've been in the same situation though - the people right next to you are struggling with a menu or directions and you think "will I or won't I help?" because you don't want to seem like you've been eavesdropping. And sometimes, when I have made the effort and offered help, people look at me in such a way as to make me wish that I hadn't bothered... So it's a difficult one, I agree.

New Hampshire
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3. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

If they seemed like they would appreciate assistance, I would offer it.

But, many people are very stubborn.

I was at the creperie on rue Cler one day. The couple who sat down next to me didn't understand anything on the list. I offered to translate and they declined. They pointed to order. When their crepes arrived, the woman said, "I was hoping for ham and cheese" and the gent said, "I didn't know I picked a dessert".

One evening at Au Bon Accueil, a nicely dressed family of four was nearby. Apparently, they ordered "Le Boeuf - MEE-DEE-UM" everywhere they dined.

Tampa, Florida
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4. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

there's no way to have a rule...some people will welcome help, and some people won't...and they're not labeled for your convenience.

London, UK
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5. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

Interesting points. I do sometimes offer advice to fellow diners who seem to be having problems, particularly if there are still problems when they make enquiries of the waiting staff and I feel able to help. However, I think it likely that this would be mainly to fellow Brits rather than to people seeking out transatlantic food terminology (I was not aware that there was another term for courgette).

England, United...
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6. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I think it's part of the experience - even fun - of travelling to choose from a menu you don't quite understand. Years ago when in HongKong I wanted to try truly local food and deliberately went into a local Chinese restaurant with only Chinese diners in it. When presented with a menu only in Chinese I pointed at something totally at random. I ate it and kept telling myself that it was chicken, but I'm not at all sure ...

Maybe you're worrying too much, sojoh. You tried to do the right thing and be helpful. As Sunshine says, sometimes people will want help and sometimes they won't. It's one of those things where there's no universal answer.

England
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7. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I've also experienced the odd situation where someone just doesn't want to be helped. It's almost seen as a challenge to their intelligence: "I'm perfectly capable of reading a menu, thanks." (Er, no I can't - it's in French - but I don't want to look stupid.)

To avoid any possible resentment I tend to wait until the they get into difficulty with the restaurant staff, before offering to help. So when the waiter starts to struggle - "It's fish with Persil" (when he means parsley) - you can usefully chip in without issue as you are seen to be helping out the poor waiter, not the tourist.

Paris, France
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8. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

Thanks for all of your answers. I guess that this is just one of those things that come with moving to a new place. I had a fairly hands off approach to tourists when we lived in Switzerland because so many of the locals are multilingual that there was rarely a need for me to translate. It's a bit different here and something I'll just have to get used to and make a decision on a situation to situation basis as Sunshine suggests.

railtraveller - I just Googled "zucchini" and Wikipedia says that Americans, Germans and Australians use the Italian form of the word while the English and French say courgette, although I think that my Australian friends also say courgette. I'll have to ask them.

celestina, I like the idea of just picking something from a menu without knowing what it is! I recently ordered pigs feet in a restaurant here but the waiter pretty much refused to serve it to me after he found out that I hadn't eaten it before. He said that most Americans don't like them and suggested something else. So much for being daring and trying something new!

Urbandale, Iowa
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9. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I would like someone to help translate for me. Being from the Midwest, I'm use to people being friendly and helpful so I wouldn't find it odd or be offended by it.

Ottawa, Canada
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10. Re: To help translate or not - a question for visitors to Paris

I have often helped people in restaurants. You can usually tell if you should offer or not by the level of confusion they seem to be in.

Most recently we helped a German couple at a restaurant on Place St Andre des Arts. They spoke a bit of English but no French. The waiter did speak a bit of English. I helped the wife as we were inches apart... my wife helped the husband.

They seemed to have settled on things but must have got flustered when the waiter returned. Pointing to the menu she asked him "What is this?"

"Steak tartare madame... it is beef and it is RAW!" came the reply. She made a face. "And what is this?" she asked hopefully, pointing to something else... "It is fish madame, and it is DEAD!"

I thought my wife and I would burst trying to hold in the laughter. Their food came and they cleaned their plates very efficiently so all was well.

A day or 2 later on Rue Soufflot we helped a fellow Canadian couple from Vancouver who were struggling with the menu. We ended up talking with them the whole meal as they were very friendly and seemed happy to have an English conversation. She pulled out her Rick Steves and mentioned the place was in his book... only then did I notice about half the tables had a Steves book sitting on them! LOL The food wasn't bad at all. ;^)

I have also gratefully been on the receiving end of help in restaurants in Greece where menus are pretty much opaque to me if outside of a heavily touristed area.

Rob

Edited: 23 April 2011, 13:26