Monday, August 14, 2006

More Fun With Babelfish

Eiffel Tower

Yellojkt looking for a sidewalk cafe.
As at least some of my readers know, I spend way too much time in the comment section (or Boodle, as the commenters like to call it) of a blog written by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post. Joel recently went on a long working vacation with his family in France and the first of his humor columns, titled "The Art of Doing Nothing", about the experience was published. It humorously admires the ability of the French to completely relax at the omnipresent sidewalk cafes.

Back when I visited France a few years ago, I loved bistros and the little restauraunts where a single person was chef, maitre d’, waiter, and bottle washer. They have charm that no franchise of Le Madeline will ever capture. I knew just enough French to be able to tell "boeuf" from "poulet" on the very helpful menu boards on the outsides of all Parisian restaurants (a practice I wish us Yanks would emulate more often), but I still had great meal after great meal. I envy the café lifestyle Joel gently mocks.

Anyhoo, us Boodlers are a pretty tight knit bunch, and when a lot of new commenters come out of the woodwork, we get mildly suspicious. The phenomenon is known as a RoveStorm from when Joel was critical of Karl Rove and all sorts of chaos ensued. In a fit of political incorrectness that only an Ugly American like myself can muster, I called the influx of Gallic comments a FrogStorm. I apologigize for the anuran slur. It turns out that Joel’s column had caught the attention of Yahoo France. They had a front page synopsis of the column which made many French speakers seek out the source. Hence, the many new voices on the comments. Some took umbrage, but others got the humor.

The Yahoo column was in French, of course, so I ran it through Babelfish trying to get the gist of it. I have written before about what a complete hash Babelfish makes of anything remotely idiomatic and this was no exception. To make sure that Babelfish is just as incompetent in French as it is in German, I took the quotes from the French article and translated them back into English to see if it would even come close to Joel’s original bon mots.

Joel Achenbach columnYahoo France summaryBabelfish back into English
Sitting in a cafe is one of the main activities in Paris.S'assoir dans un café est une des principales activités à assoir itself in a coffee is one of the principal activities in Paris.
It's what Parisians do instead of working or jogging.S'assoir dans un café (...) c'est ce que font les Parisiens au lieu de travailler ou de faire du is what the Parisian ones instead of working do or to make jogging.
…a Frenchman in a pose so relaxed he might have been modeling for Toulouse-Lautrec. He was doing nothing, and doing it with panache.un Français assis dans une pose si détendue qu'il aurait pu être un modèle pour Toulouse-Lautrec. Il ne faisait rien et le faisait avec panache.a French sitting in an installation if slackened that it could have been a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. It did not do anything and did it with plume.
Or perhaps he was just enjoying the Latin Quarter, a section so old that I am pretty sure its residents still speak in Latin.A moins qu'il ne profite tout simplement du Quartier latin, un quartier si vieux que, je suis sûr, les habitants parlent le latin.A less than it does not benefit quite simply from the Latin Quarter, a district so old that, I am sure, the inhabitants speak Latin.

I am assuming that the person that wrote the Yahoo article did a good job translating Joel into French. Humor is notoriously tone dependent. Let me know if you do know any French and can vouch for the quality of the Yahoo article. As you can tell, even when real French speakers do the first round of translation, a roundtrip through Babelfish is guaranteed to lose all nuance and most meaning from whatever sentence you started with. Someday this stuff will actually work, but that day is not now.


dr said...

"to assoir itself in a coffee is one of the principal activities in Paris."

That just says it all doesn't it.

Anonymous said...

Hi !

I'm confirming that the translation from Yahoo France is correct. BUT they just picked up some sentences out of the context, so humor tone is not translate. So lot of french people don't catch the humoristic part of the essay.

My english is really poor but, I'll try to find time for a translation which don't destroy mister Achenbach's work


Karen said...

The translations were good, what was wrong was the characterization and the tone of the Yahoo article. It's like you can say, "'Have a nice day,' she snarled." Journalists always have a choice in how they characterize what was said by their choice of verbs. This article uses the verb "s'etonner" to start with, and that implies that Joel was "astonished" or "amazed" by French customs (just fell off a hay truck, maybe?). Then the author goes on to state that Joel is "stigmatizing" the French, albeit "with humor"--but that phrase is buried and could be taken as sardonic when you consider the context. (The context is, it was written by a French person!)

S'assoir dans un café est une des principales activités à Paris", s'étonne un correspondant du Washington Post Magazine qui stigmatise avec humour "L'Art de ne rien faire", une spécialité que "personne ne fait mieux que les Français", selon lui.

Then to go right to, "sitting in a cafe is what French people do instead of working or jogging," well that does sound like a moral judgment from a hopeless Puritan, doesn't it? And from there it just goes downhill. The Yahoo guy characterizes Joel as being "worried" about the question, "Why doesn't he try to do something?" (referring to his cafe neighbor). Then quotes Joel saying that the Latin Quarter is so old "I'm pretty sure" the inhabitants still speak Latin. Except instead of "I'm pretty sure" which conveys a sort of patented Joel-type humor, the Yahoo guy uses the phrase "Je suis sur" which translates, obviously, "I am sure." And the piece de resistance of course, is when he slams our boy as "a New World journalist"--you can just hear the subtext, "what do you expect from a parvenue.

Thank you, yellojkt, for giving me the opportunity to pontificate here. I hereby forgive you completely for introducing that horrible babelfish translation into the boodle.

yellojkt said...

coyote, Your English is infinitely better than my French. You have made some great observations.

kb, tone is everything. We need to keep that in mind when we read things other places say about us.

Joel Achenbach said...

Another problem with my column is that it's barely any good in English to begin with...

I am always shocked when people read a teasing comment as "mean" or "an attack"...jeepers, its so obvious that I am envying the French guy, isn't it???

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, Joel - you know, Loomis was the first one to say it was full of cliches! (I thought that was the point.) Maybe for your next articles you should provide the full French translation, too.

yellojkt, this is so cool - JA commented on your blog!


Mooselet said...

Well, since my French is limtied to "oui", "non" and "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi cer soi" - and I'm fairly certain I didn't spell that phrase correctly - I can't comment on that.

However, humour is a cultural thing and very difficult to translate even among English speaking cultures. Just look at British humour (very dry) or Aussie humour (very baudy) and how many Yanks are either offended or just don't get it.

But we can all agree that Babelfish is kinda crappy.

Laurence said...

I am really a french girl... And I did not know that we have "l'art de ne rien faire"... But I like the idea !
Good translations !

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