An unexpected ingredient

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Reader CM writes:

Last Sunday I went to a cafe in central Wiesbaden. In Germany, some ingredients have to be declared on restaurant menus. This is usually done via footnotes, with a key on the last page. That's what was done on this cafe's menu, and the footnotes in German were completely unremarkable:

But the English version of the footnotes delivered a wonderfully weird little surprise:

These are mostly as expected — though maybe "food coloring" would be more idiomatic than "dye" — except for the the translation of "Koffeinhaltig" (which really means "caffeine-containing") as "Suitcase".

CM continues:

The waitress was quite confused when I ordered a coke "but without the luggage please" – and *very* amused when I showed her the footnote (she speaks fluent English).

I have no idea how this could have happened, except for the fact that the German noun for "suitcase" is "Koffer", sounding vaguely like "Koffein". It can't be a google translation, and it certainly has not been done by anyone with even a minimal knowledge of the English language.

Could it be a combination of German-side spelling correction (turning e.g. "Koffen" to "Koffer") followed by some careless machine-assisted translation?


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    Koffer for Koffein would be a plausible OCR mistake, though OCR on a café menu would be overkill.

  2. markonsea said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    I am sinking it maybe is a yoke?

  3. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    Koffein -> Koffer is plausible enough, but what about the "haltig" ("containing")?

    "Kofferhaltig" would be "contains suitcase", not merely "suitcase". It's something you might expect to see proudly printed on the side of a luggage store. In fact, I'm donating "gewaltig kofferhaltig" as a free slogan.

  4. Lars said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    Looks to me like a Cupertino.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

    @Lars: Or maybe a kübertino.

  6. Mike said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    Never mind OCR and cupertinos, what's with the killjoy policy on disclosing ingredients? Caffeine is an industrial additive??

    By the way, this YouTuber seems to have a similar problem but I can't see the Chinese for it. "Tofu suitcase"–bad translation of "盒子" (box)?

  7. djw said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    My poor old eyes saw the bottom ingredient on the first column as "sweaters" at first glance, so I was really curious about foodstuffs with both suitcases and sweaters. Thank goodness for the second reading!

  8. Jan said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 4:32 pm


  9. Chad Nilep said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    Bing Translator ( renders "koffeinhaltig" as "suitcase". That or similarly flawed MT may well be the immediate cause. The remaining question is how does the algorithm that created this mistranslation work. Statistical matching seems unlikely.

    [(myl) As you say, Aha! but WTF?]

  10. phspaelti said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    @Jeroen Mostert:Koffein -> Koffer is plausible enough, but what about the "haltig" ("containing")?

    A more plausible form of auto correction would take
    "koffeinhalt" to "Kofferinhalt" which is completely idiomatic German, and considerably more common than "koffeinhaltig", I would say. And -ig is a common suffix on nouns (though it wouldn't be appropriate here).

  11. Matt said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    When given "Koffeinhaltig", Google Translate offers the default translation "caffeine", but if you click on the word to see the alternate suggestions, "suitcase" is there, at the bottom of the list. So, statistical matching of some corpus available to both systems, I guess.

  12. phspaelti said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    So the literal English translation of "kofferinhaltig" should be "having contents of suitcase propert(ies)". "Suitcase" doesn't seem that bad for that.

  13. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 25, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

    In many German-English dictionaries (e.g., Collins), koffeinhaltig and Koffer are consecutive headwords. So if a headword list is used as a text source for automated translation, it's possible that the adjacency could lead to an erroneous match.

  14. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 3:50 am

    The translation was done by a Vollkoffer.

  15. Adam said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 4:48 am

    I wonder why the original has a form of "contain" in 3 and 7, but not in 2, 4, and the head of 6. "2 Farbstoff" implicitly means "Items with this footnote contain food coloring", so why not just "3 Koffein" and "7 Sulfite".

  16. Margaret said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    @Adam: because one refers back to a mixture and one to a single ingredient.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    I'd say that on food labels, we'd expect to see "artificial colors" instead of "dyes" or "food coloring", and "preservatives" instead of "antioxidants". However, I can see why they use "antioxidants" (good) instead of "preservatives" (bad).

  18. ShadowFox said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    @Mike–why "killjoy" from disclosure? We have similar policies on some things. Restaurant menus must disclose specific raw ingredients, such as raw meat, fish and eggs. Caffeine must be labeled on cans of soft drinks (and in Europe, it must be labeled with the specific amount). And it's merely footnotes–it's not like it's in the food description. Besides, it sounds like these notes are attached to items that the place does not make themselves but gets them as retail items.

  19. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:48 am

    Adam, likely because some paragraphs of the regulations require the foodstuff to be declared as a member of a class and others require the presence of specific substances as such to be declared.

    Compare Art. 9 1.(c), Art. 21 and Annex III of Regulation 1169/2011 (EU):

  20. Adam said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    @Margaret, Ben Hemmens:

    I think I see what you mean: note 2 means "artificial color as such has been added", whereas notes 3 & 7 mean "something that itself contains coffee/sulphites has been added".

  21. CM said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    Submitter here. Thanks to all commenters, and especially to Chad for the solution:
    It's Microsoft's fault. How delightful. I guess someone used MS Word's integrated translation feature (which I just verified exists), thereby probably using the same backend as Bing.

    This of course changes the question from "how in hell did this happen?" to "WTF, Bing‽"…

  22. drsusancalvin said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

    @djw: reporting, on the internet, one's misreading of internet text is like telling people about that dream you had. Some experiences can't be fully shared.

  23. Bert said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:32 am

    Interestingly, Bing translates inflected forms correctly: "koffeinhaltige Getränke" yields "caffeinated drinks". Somehow just the word "koffeinhaltig" must have been indexed as "Koffer", since Bing also translates "koffeinhaltig" as "valise", "maleta", etc. into other languages.

    Besides, multilingual stock photo sites are full with pictures of koffeinhaltig suitcases.

  24. Steve Taylor said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    Mike said,

    > Never mind OCR and cupertinos, what's with the killjoy policy on disclosing ingredients? Caffeine is an industrial additive??

    Killjoy? Makes my life a damned sight easier, as I have a daughter with some severe allergies. Not to coffee or suitcases admittedly…

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