This post was updated on 25 July 2016.
Are you terrified by the thought of having to count to 10 in a foreign language, much less trying to explain to someone from a different culture what you do and don't eat as a vegan?
Or maybe you're fluent in six different languages, but it just so happens that Chinese isn't one of them, and your boss has just sent you to Guangzhou to be wined and dined by potential clients at a series of never-ending Chinese banquets. You've been told to expect shark fin soup.
Don't worry, help is on the way! I've put together a list of all the tools out there that will allow you to order a vegan meal with confidence, even if the waiter doesn't understand a word you're saying.
These are not just standard phrase books or translation apps; they are tailor-made for vegan travellers and run the gamut from state-of-the-art apps to DIY arts and craft projects that you cut out and fold along the dotted line. Whether you're heading to Taipei or Timbuktu, there's sure to be one that's right for you.
The Vegan Passport
Price: £4.95 in paperback ($1.99 in the US Apple Store for the mobile app)
Format: Pocket-sized paperback book AND Apple, Windows or Android app.
The Good: Many languages, extensive explanation, useful illustrations
The Bad: Not much to complain about here!
Of all the tools out there, this multilingual booklet published by the Vegan Society in the UK has been around the longest and is thus well tried and tested. It has also been expanded and improved on with each new addition. The explanation of veganism is extensive and covers not only what vegans don't eat, but also plenty of examples of what we do eat.
The latest edition, released in July 2016, includes a whopping 79 languages, which together are spoken by 96% of the world's population.
And if you do run into someone who doesn't read any of those languages, the Vegan Passport has still got you covered. The last two pages use pictures to explain veganism at a glance; on the left side is a smiling face surrounded by fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, etc., and on the right side is a frowning face surrounded by animal products.
This is sometimes the most effective way to get your meaning across even with someone who does speak your language.
For years, the Vegan Passport was only available in hard copy format. But with the release of the fifth edition in 2016, the Vegan Society has also launched a mobile version for your smartphone!
You can search either by language or by country. This is handy in multilingual countries, like Switzerland or Belgium, as you can easily provide someone with explanations in multiple languages if you're not sure which language they're most comfortable with.
The (Other) Vegan Passport
Format: Website and PDF
The Good: Clear explanation with images, many languages supported
The Bad: Unclear whether all languages have been translated by native speakers
There appears to be a new kid on the block that is also calling itself the "vegan passport". They even managed to snag the veganpassport.com URL. This one is free, so if you're on a tight budget it could be a good option. The explanations of vegan vs. non-vegan foods are concise and clear, and they're further illustrated by graphic images that help get the message across.
While there is no mobile app version, you can print the passport as a PDF and carry a few copies around with you. It's currently available in 53 languages, and anyone with language skills is encouraged to help translate it into more languages.
Format: Laminated credit-card-sized card
The Good: Will survive the wear and tear of travel better than paper
The Bad: Absurdly overpriced, covers only one language per card.
Select Wisely is a company that specializes in food allergy travel translation cards. They have also expanded to cover other types of allergies and health conditions as well as the vegetarian/vegan market. The card, while basic, does a pretty good job of getting the idea across, but at a ridiculous price. A separate card must be ordered for each language, at a cost of 14 bucks per card. Select wisely by not choosing this company.
Format: Downloadable PDF or GIF file
The Good: Useful for vegetarians and vegans travelling together
The Bad: Could be confusing/misleading for restaurant staff
This free phrase card was created by the authors of Making Sense - a language and translation blog - and covers nine of the world's most commonly-spoken languages. In each language, the card provides just two, effective sentences – one explaining what vegetarians don't eat and another explaining what vegans don't eat.
This is particularly useful for vegans and vegetarians travelling together, though if you only want to order vegan food it might get confusing for the restaurant staff to see both explanations right next to each other.
The translations have all been done by professional translators, and I can confirm that the ones in languages I have a good knowledge of did seem to be clear and accurate. You can either print out the card as a PDF file or save it as an image to your smartphone (just click on the image above to access the download links). And it's free, so the price is hard to beat.
Format: Printable paper cards, or iPhone app (iOS 7.0 or later)
The Good: Comes in 105 languages, and it's free
The Bad: Only about 30 have been checked by a native speaker; the rest are machine translations
V-Cards are available either in an old-school, DIY version that you print, cut out and fold into cards yourself, or as an app for your iPhone (the Android version is currently in development). They cover no fewer than 105 languages, including some pretty obscure ones.
While some languages have been translated by native speakers, and others have at least been checked and amended by native speakers, about two-thirds of them are machine translations.
Meaning, you could achieve the same thing by writing your own explanation of what you do and don't eat and running it through Google Translate.
I would be very wary of using the cards in a language that hasn't been vetted by a native speaker, as this might only lead to confusion.
What worries me the most is that the cards include a couple of extremely generic words that generally do NOT refer to animal products, like “sauce” and “oil”! Granted, these are written under headings like "No Meat" and "No Animal Products", but I'm afraid they are likely to be misinterpreted by someone unfamiliar with veganism.
One advantage of the paper format, though, is that you can hand the card over to your server and let them take it back to the kitchen to show the chef. Something you probably wouldn't want to do if it meant handing over your smartphone. You can grab your printable cards here, or download the app from the iTunes App Store:
Price: 99 cents
Format: iPhone app (iOS 7.0 or later)
The Good: Highly customizable for all kinds of diets
The Bad: Limited number of languages
EatAway was created by a vegan who travels frequently and thus has her finger on the pulse of vegan travellers' needs; just check out Libby's videos of her travel adventures on the EatAway blog and see for yourself. At the same time, it also includes a wide variety of other dietary options, such as gluten-free, low-glycemic and various food allergies.
This is particularly helpful for vegans who also have other dietary requirements. In fact, you can customize the app to fit just about any diet imaginable. Do you hate mushrooms? No problem! You can now ask for a vegan AND mushroom-free meal.
Another interesting feature is the option to include a medical condition statement in the translated request you show to your waiter. The rationale given for this is that some cultures are less responsive than others when dealing with special diets, so some travellers find it effective to refer to their diet as a health issue.
I personally disagree with this approach, but we can save that discussion for another day.
Once you have adjusted your diet profile to your satisfaction, you choose the target language and then hand the phone over to the waiter, who reads and then taps a button saying either “I understand” or “I don't understand”.
Translations are available in seven languages: French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. While this may not sound that impressive compared to the 99 offered by V-Cards, when it comes to translation, quality is WAY more important than quantity.
If one of those seven is the language spoken where you're going, then that's all that matters, isn't it? Also, the app works offline, which is definitely handy when you're travelling and don't have data access on your phone. It's available for download from the iTunes App Store.
Format: iPhone app (iOS 8.0 or later)
The Good: Includes a variety of useful phrases
The Bad: Must have a fancy-pants new iPhone to use it
Of all the tools listed here, this is the only one that can really be called a phrasebook. As in, it offers translations of multiple phrases that are useful for travellers.
Sure, the most common scenario vegan travellers find themselves in is the dreaded attempt to order food in a restaurant, and all the tools here will get you through that scenario more or less successfully.
But what about other occasions when you might want to communicate your needs?
In addition to the standard, “I am a vegan. I do not eat....” spiel, Veganagogo also lets you ask locals questions like, “Can you please mark on my map a restaurant that serves vegan food?” or “Can you please write down the names of some local vegan dishes?”
And if you'd like to show your appreciation by saying, “That was a great meal,” you can do that too.
You can even ask if there is a pizzeria or Indian restaurant nearby. While these are perhaps more of a go-to standby for vegetarians than for vegans (Veganagogo was created by a vegetarian and was preceded by its vegetarian counterpart, Veggoagogo), they're still a safe bet when nothing else is available.
These phrases have been translated by professionals into 50 languages, making Veganagogo the clear winner when it comes to offering both quality AND quantity.
The app is very sleek, attractive and easy to read, and the cartoon images of animals and animal products help to get the message across in a clear but light-hearted way. Download it from the iTunes App Store using the button below.
And that wraps up our round-up of the translations tools available to vegan travellers. As you can see, there are plenty of options out there. So no more excuses! You can still travel the world with ease, even if your foreign language skills go no further than “una cerveza, por favor”.
Which of these tools are you most likely to use? Let me know in the comments below!
This post contains affiliate links to the iTunes store. If you purchase an app through any of these links, I make a teensy weensy commission at no extra cost to you.