Wednesday, October 30, 2019

We've all been there...

What You Actually Said on Your First Day as a "French-Speaking" N.Y.C. Tour Guide:
A hilarious piece (in which many of you will recognize yourselves -- I know I did) from the New Yorker.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Machine translation, continued

Just as I was wondering who my blog followers were, he contacted me.

James Peduzzi, a student at Dulwich College, London, offered to improve the IQ of my blog by about 1000 percent with the following guest post. It seems that, despite what you've heard about the the miracle of machine translation, James and all you other students out there are going to have to continue to learn French the hard way: by studying. Sorry.

Guest Post by James Peduzzi, Dulwich College, London

As a French student, I think there’s too much reliance on online translators nowadays. I have fallen susceptible to using their modern and easy websites to help me in the odd homework, but I wanted to see how accurate they are. So, I typed two very short and simple French sentences into various translators. The phrase was: ‘Ma soeur s'appelle Charlotte. On l'appelle Lottie.’ The correct translation of this would be, ‘My sister is called Charlotte. We call her Lottie’.
Google Translate translated this as, ‘My sister's name is Charlotte. It's called Lottie.’ About 5 other translation website I used also got this result. It’s obvious that the algorithms used don’t know the slightly more complicated grammatical structure that involves the subject pronoun ‘on’. Furthermore, it also fails to analyse the previous sentence and therefore translates as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’!
Another one spat out, ‘My sister is called Charlotte. She is called Lottie’. It seems that the second sentence is a slight contradiction of the first, owing to the fact that machines can’t analyse meaning well.  Also, it disregarded the direct object pronoun and mistranslated ‘on’, so it gets the meaning completely wrong.

The third and final one was frankly mind-bogglingly bad. A well-respected university translator translated it as: ‘My sister’s name is Charlotte. ‘S called it Lottie’. The second sentence just doesn’t even make sense, not even grammatically. This one took me by surprise – I wasn’t expecting a failure this large. 

Of about the 10 I tried, only one website got the translation correct – it’s called ‘DeepL’. I’m not sure if this was a fluke or not, but it seems quite careful. On it’s website it describes itself as ‘the world’s best machine translation.’ Very humble as well.
So, the moral of the story is: don’t rely on Google Translate too much – there are other perfectly good websites but in general, it’s probably best to steer clear of online translators for now, especially if you’re translating complicated language structures. Good alternatives include WordReference, Linguee and an old-fashioned dictionary. 

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart now in its fourth printing. Order here or from your favorite bookseller.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is Google Translate now "human"? (Or, fruit flies when you're having fun)

Much has been made of the new version of Google Translate that was quietly released in November. In my book, Flirting with French, I discuss how GT works (thanks to a terrific interview I was granted with a GT developer). But it was, back then, still a hit-and-miss proposition. But last month, Google released a version based on artificial intelligence (for French-English and Chinese-English) that was said to be noticeably superior.

So how is it? To find out how good the new GT really is,  I tested in both directions: first with a label from a French wine bottle that has hilariously been mistranslated by some machine translation program a few years ago, rendering such gems as "flavor of fishings" for "flavor of peaches," and my acid-test English phrase "Fruit flies like spoiled peaches." Both of these had given GT fits in the past.  The result?

"Fruit flies like spoiled peaches" was translated as Mouches des fruits comme les pêches gâtées, which in English reads "Fruit flies such as spoiled peaches" Utter failure. 👎  (Although this is an improvement over a previous translation of flying fruit).

However, the wine bottle label fared much better:

Cette cuvée est issue de l’assemblage de cépages Viognier et Clairette blanche de 88 ans, récoltée entièrement à la main, en caisses. Cela donne un vin de couleur jaune pâle avec des arômes de pêches et des fruits blancs. Servir entre 10 et 12°C, à l’apéritif, avec du foie gras, des poissons cuisinés ou des viandes blanches.

was translated as:

"This cuvée comes from the combination of Viognier and Clairette white grapes of 88 years, harvested entirely by hand, in boxes. This gives a pale yellow wine with aromas of peaches and white fruits. Serve between 10 and 12 ° C, as an aperitif, with foie gras, fish cooked or white meats."  👍

Previously GT had all the words more or less right, but couldn't put them together in a sentence. So perhaps there is hope for me in communicating in French after all!

Bonne année à tous! (Which is how GT said it. Hmm, I'd have gone with tous le monde...)

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart now in its fourth printing. Order here or from your favorite bookseller.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Flirting with . . . Russian?

You betcha! And I don't mean Donald Trump.

Last year I was contacted by a student at Moscow State Linguistic University who was translating several chapters of Flirting with French into Russian as part of her studies. Ira Skvortsova plans to be a Russian-French translator, and my book, she wrote, "combines everything I could have needed: your word games (which are hilarious) and the touches of French in the text present a great interest for me as a reader and as a translator."

Well, flattery gets you everywhere with me, as does the prospect of seeing Flirting translated into the language of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (!), thus began a year-long correspondence with Ira, during which I found myself faced with questions I'd never considered: What effect was I trying to achieve in peppering my book with French phrases? Why is saying "le conducteur" funnier in some contexts than "the conductor"? How does one get any of these ideas across in the Cyrillic alphabet? Not to mention my English (and French) puns! And how much has reading me warped the poor mind of a young Russian student?

I didn't have answers for any of these questions, but, fortunately, Ira did, so, below, for your reading pleasure, is an excerpt of Ira's Russian translation of Flirting with French.
Merci, Ira. It's been a wonderful experience working with you, and I wish you the best in your studies and career!
    Мы с Кейти собираем чемоданы, и так сразу не скажешь, кто из нас
больше волнуется: отец или дочь.
– Через неделю я еду в Гану, не зная ни слова на твуи, – говорит она.
– Ага, а я через две недели еду во Францию, почти не говоря на французском.
– Пап, ну ладно тебе! Твой французский стал намного лучше, с тех пор, как я в
последний раз была дома. Тем более, ты едешь во Францию как раз учить язык.
Попробуй выучить твуи, если думаешь, что французский слишком сложный.
    Кейти едет в Гану по обмену на следующий семестр. А твуи это язык, на
котором разговаривает все местное население, хотя официальный язык –
английский. Она будет ходить в университет и жить в семье неподалеку от
Аккры. И она хочет проявить уважение к хозяевам (и не только), разговаривая
на привычном им языке.
– Это тоновый язык.
– Что такое тоновый язык? – переспросил я.
     И тут она, повышая и понижая голос, как при пении, показала, что такое
тоны голоса.
– Существуют высокий, низкий и средний тон, это часть произношения. Слово,
произнесенное с низким тоном, может иметь совершенно иное значение при
произнесении с высоким тоном.
     И она еще раз наглядно изобразила, как это работает. Твуи действительно
кажется сложнее французского.
– А как звучит твое имя на твуи? – спрашиваю я.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Flirting with French just $1.99 on Kindle! C'est fou!

Just in time for Bastille Day, the New York Times bestseller Flirting with French is only $1.99 (or about a hundred British pounds, the way things are going) on Kindle. Come on, you can't buy a decent croissant for a buck-ninety-nine! Order here before they run out.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Bonjour Effect

I just read a wonderful new book by the authors of 60 Million Frenchman Can't be Wrong, and The Story of French. Their new book is called The Bonjour Effect, and Francophiles will take to Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau's book like a Frenchman to foie gras.  

If you feel like you've insulted every French clerk, waiter, and shopkeeper you've ever met, a) you're not alone; and b) you probably have. But at least, after reading this codebook to French language and culture, you'll know why!

And make sure to say bonne journée on your way out!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#Je suis...circumflexe?

"I started the day with a bit of vomit in my mouth," tweeted one Frenchman. Oh no, not another terrorist attack?! Worse - the French Education Ministry is eliminating the circumflex - that little "hat" in words like tête, forêt, and sûr

"#Je suis Charlie" quickly became "#Je suis circumflexe" on Twitter. Really? Well, the French do take their language seriously. To me, the most interesting part of the story is, as I've written in Flirting with French, that the French government dictates such matters as word usage and spelling. In America (and, I imagine most of the world), language just kinds of evolves organically. Put another way, our dictionaries reflect language usage, rather than dictate it.

The circumflex has an interesting history, by the way. It was introduced by early printers as a way to indicate that a word once had an "s" that is no longer used.  Put the "s" back in, and many French words become easily recognizable as their English counterparts: forêt, hôpital, côte.

 The Education Ministry also changed the spelling of a number of words:
   Oignon becomes ognon 
   Week-end becomes weekend (perhaps acknowledging once and for all its English roots)

2400 spelling changes in all! And you thought our kids had it rough in school... 

If you like this kind of wonkish stuff, by the way, you'll love Flirting with French -- bien sûr!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Plus de films français pour l'hiver (More French films for winter)

Spring-in-December having ended here in the northeast, it's that time of year when I start hunkering down and watching movies. Last year I published a list of my favorite French films streaming on Netflix; this year I've had some help from Pankaj Solanki, who has posted a list on the website

I can personally endorse a couple of the entries on the list, The Taste of Others and 2 Days in Paris and would add to the list the erudite and fun Bicycling with Moliere  and the terrific French cop series, Spiral.

Bonne année, tout le monde! (Et merci, Pankaj!)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Le cadeau parfait pour Noël

Le cadeau parfait pour Noël? Fliring with French, bien sûr! Or one of my other books. If you don't happen to live near Shakespeare & Co. (see previous post) you can order from your reseller of choice on my website

Merci, and joyeux fetes, tout le monde!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hemingway must be rolling over in his grave

I just received the following note from a friend:

In September we spent a week in Paris with four friends. I was showing them the sights on the Left Bank, when we stopped in to Shakespeare & Company.  The first thing I saw upon entering, on a shelf to the right of the door was your book!!!
 I almost fell over!!! How very cool is that??!!- Shakespeare & Paris....itself!!!

 For those of you who don't know, Shakespeare & Co. is the famous bookstore in Paris, founded by Sylvia Beach, that was the epicenter of the ex-pat literary world of the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Joyce, Elliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein... not to mention, believe it or not, another former resident of my tiny town: Djuna Barnes. What are the odds....