Sunday, January 20, 2013

Côté voiture

Anne and I were having dinner in a French restaurant last night, when I noticed a specialty cocktail on the menu that might appeal to her. "Which one?" she asked.

"The côté voiture."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, 'voiture' is car. Côté...Damn, I know that word. Aghh! What's that word? 'Something' car.."

Before I could come up with it, Anne started reading the ingredients..."Cognac, Grand Marnier, sugar...It's a sidecar!"

Of course: à côté means "next to." A year of studying French, and I come up empty, but my wife, who had one semester 40 years ago (but knows her mixology), comes up with the term! Needless to say, somewhat shaken and in need of a drink, I ordered one.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

France more popular than Congress

In a stunning reversal of fortune, a poll just released by Public Policy Polling reveals that American hold a higher view of France than of the U.S. Congress! To be be fair, Americans also hold a higher view of cockroaches and traffic jams (of which France has plenty, at least of the latter), but this nevertheless represents a huge step forward for my beloved France.

But seriously, why is France so unpopular in the U.S.? It is because their food is better than ours? Their wine a fraction of the cost? Their health-care system easy-to-use, convenient, and ...FREE? Or that their government actually works? I often hear that the French are rude -- that's not been my experience, except for one case when I deserved it, and even then the indirect cause of my thoughtlessness in holding up a busy line was that the Frenchman at the train ticket widow was being so unfailingly helpful and patient.

Wait, I's because they have no shower curtains on their bathtubs (because you're supposed to shower while sitting with a handheld showerhead which you aim very carefully). I'll have more to say about French showers in my forthcoming book about learning French, but in the meantime, I'm gratified to see that France's popularity is on the upswing. Oh, sorry, I just checked the numbers, and it's actually more the case that Congress's popularity is approaching that of malaria. Regardless, vive la France!

Add your comments as to why Americans hate the French

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Google Translate blows "Happy New Year"

With the some students staying with us for New Year's Eve, I wanted to make sure I knew how to say "Happy New Year" in French. I was pretty sure it was simply Bonne Année, but went to Google Translate to be sure, which inexplicably gave me the mouthful, heureuse nouvelle année! Yes, that's the literal translation, but not what French people typically say to each other on January 1 (or, as they know it, 1 January).

I know Google Translate isn't perfect, but this one surprised me, because Google uses a statistically-based algorithm, searching though its massive online database for all occurrences of the phrase to be translated, then choosing the translation (done by humans) that comes up the most frequently. Thus I would think "happy new year" would be an easy one, being such a common phrase.  Not so. 

This glitch is reminiscent of the early days of statistically-based machine translation, when researchers from IBM were using the Hansard -- the minutes of the Canadian Parliament, recorded in both English and French -- as their database. In the early tests, there were surprised to find the word "hear" translated by the software into "bravo." What gives? Well, it turns out, when a member says something that others approve of, they call, "hear, hear!" in that British fashion. The French-speaking members, meanwhile, say, "bravo, bravo,"  both responses duly recorded in the minutes. Thus the databases thought the most likely translation for "hear" was "bravo" until it was "taught" that one "hear" alone means one things, but "hear, hear" something else.

Well, no "bravo!" for Google. But Bonne Année, everyone!