'Cette phrase en français est difficile à traduire en anglais'

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/09/25 09:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/09/25/768648.aspx

When I recently talked about Inaccurate localization can make you bust out laughing, I found myself thinking about one of the very early Metamagical Themas columns in Scientific American written by Douglas R. Hofstadter, where (in a later postcript in his book of the same name covering the column) he discussed a concept that is rather central to the concept of answering the question What is Localization?:

I wonder what literalists like John Case would suggest as the proper translation of the title of the book All the President's Men (a book about the downfall of President Nixon, a downfall that none of the people around him could prevent). Would they say that Tous le homes du Président fills the bill admirably? Back-translated rather literally, it means "All the men of the President". It completely lacks the allusion -- the reference by similarity of form -- to the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty". Is that dispensible? In my opinion, hardly. To me, the essence of the title resides in that allusion. To lose that allusion is to deflate the title totally.

Of course, what do I mean by "that allusion"? Do I wish the French title to contain, somehow, an allusion to an English nursery rhyme? That would be rather pointless. Well, then, do I want the French title to allude to the French version of "Humpty Dumpty"? It all depends on how well known it is. But given that Humpty Dumpty is practically an unknown figure to French-speaking people, it seems that something else is wanted. Any old French nursery rhyme? Obviously not. The critical allusion is to the lines:

All the King's horses
And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Are there -- anywhere in French literature -- lines with a similar import? If not, how about in French popular songs? In French proverbs? Fairy Tales?

One might well ask why French-speaking people would ever care about reading a book about Watergate in the first place. And even if they did want to read it, shouldn't it be completely translated, so that it happens in a French-speaking city? Come to think of it, didn't Ioranto once remark that the French for Washington is Montréal?

Clearly, this is carrying things to an extreme. There must be some middle ground of reasonableness. These are matters of subtle judgment, and they are where being human and flexible makes all the difference. Rigid rules about translation may lead you to a kind of mechanical consistency, but at the expense of all depth and charm. The problem of self-referential sentences is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as translation is concerned. It is just that these issues show up very early when direct self-reference is concerned. When self-reference (or reference in general, for that matter) is indirect, mediated by form, then fluidity is required. The understanding of such sentences involves a mixture of deriving the content and yet retaining the form in mind, letting qualities of the form conjure up flavors and enhance the meaning with a halo of not-quite-conscious pseudo-meanings, connotations, flavors, that flicker in the mind, not quite in reach, not quite out of reach. Self-reference is a good starting point for investigation of this kind of issue, because it is so much on the surface there. You can't sweep the problems under the rug, even though some would like to do so.

Now the actual column was titled "On Self-Referential Sentences" which is of course why much of this excerpt from the postscript talks about them, but many of the principles that are raised here this text actually relate to the real differences between translation (especially machine translation) and localization.

These are the concepts that good localization -- and good localizers -- can capture. It requires not only a good understanding of the item that is to be localized; it also requires a good understanding of both the source market and the target market.

The localization of software often has it slightly easier, at least in that the formal style of the item might contain less in the way of allusions and such. But to be honest one never knows what one is going to get, which is why a good localizer is needed to pick up the slack....

By the way, the actual column is highly recommended has many interesting examples, such as asking how one might take the sentence in the title and translate it into English.


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# Centaur on 25 Sep 2006 10:40 AM:

> But given that Humpty Dumpty is practically an unknown figure to
> French-speaking people, it seems that something else is wanted.

Is that so? Humpty Dumpty is referenced in Lewis Carrol’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, and the relevant rhyme is quoted. So, it would suffice to find the canonical French translation of “Alice” and hope that it quotes the canonical translation of Humpty Dumpty. E.g. in Russian it would be “Вся президентская рать”.

> how one might take the sentence in the title and translate it into
> English

“This English sentence is hard to translate into French”?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 25 Sep 2006 11:08 AM:

Yes Centaur, that would be the best way to do it (it's what the French Scientific American did!).

Ah, but you have to ask how many people in the US even knew that it was in Lewis Carroll's work -- most only know it as a nursery rhyme....

# Maurits [MSFT] on 25 Sep 2006 12:15 PM:

It was a nursery rhyme first... then Lewis Carrol picked it up and ran with it.

He did that a lot; "Star of the Evening" he re-rendered as "Soup of the Evening"; "Twinkle, Twinkle little Star" became "Twinkle, Twinkle little Bat"; "'Tis the Voice of the Sluggard" became "'Tis the Voice of the Lobster".

A few more: http://home.earthlink.net/~lfdean/carroll/parody/index.html

How about "This phrase in French is difficult to translate into English?"

s/is/was/ if you prefer, I suppose...

# Mihai on 25 Sep 2006 1:33 PM:

<<Back-translated ...>>

Now, this is a practice that I find quite useless.
Sometimes it is used in order to evaluate the quality of a translation by someone who does not know the language.
So you translate A to B (using a translation service), then B to A' (using another translation service). Then compare A to A' and see if the first translation was right.
Right? WRONG!

Do you really trust the second translation service? You are just cumulating errors. And, in fact, the only way to get A close to A' is by literal translation, which is hardly the best way.

You should find someone who natively speaks B, and grew up in France, and have him review the original translation. It should feel natural, good quality, like it was written in language B from the beginning.

In this case, taking the translation of Lewis Carroll in French is good. But one might also consider searching for something similar, but more popular (maybe some reference to Arthur and his knights?) and use it in the title.
I don't know if this is right, you have to grow up in that culture to see if it is the right thing to do or not.

So, to be a good translator you have to grok the language, be a good writer, and grok the culture (Or even sub-culture. How many Americans will understand "grok?" :-)

This is why good localization is hard.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 25 Sep 2006 1:55 PM:

In this particular case, Hofstadter was using the term specifically to explain what the French looked like here -- so people would know what was being done. So it was actually very useful in that limited scenario.

I agree about the rest of your comments, if for no other reason than they completely agree with mine in this post.... :-)

# anon on 25 Sep 2006 5:56 PM:

You really should take a look at "Le Ton Beau de Marot" by Hofstadter. He goes into these points in (great) detail :)

Great book - not quite GEB, but good.

# Maurits [MSFT] on 25 Sep 2006 7:35 PM:

One of my favorite movies - "Whisper of the Heart" - was originally written in Japanese.

One of the (major) subplots involves the heroine (a Japanese schoolgirl) translating the John Denver song "Take me Home, Country Roads" into Japanese so that her friends can sing it in their chorus class.

Her friend asks her "why not just sing it in English?"

That didn't make a heck of a lot of sense in the English-dubbed version.  Which is why I prefer the subtitled version in its original Japanese. :)

# Centaur on 26 Sep 2006 7:00 AM:

> Ah, but you have to ask how many people in the US even knew that it was
> in Lewis Carroll's work -- most only know it as a nursery rhyme....

To quote a recent movie, “What do they teach in schools these days?”

# Mihai on 26 Sep 2006 1:10 PM:

<<In this particular case, Hofstadter was using the term specifically to explain what the French looked like here -- so people would know what was being done.
So it was actually very useful in that limited scenario.>>

Only that back-translation is sometimes used (in the localization industry) as a method to assess the quality of a translation.
The thinking goes like this: I don't know X, and I don't trust anyone but me. So I pay someone else to translate from X to English, and I judge the quality of the X translation from that.
That is wrong, for the resons expressed above.

Hope this helps to make the difference between back-translation to help understanding (Hofstadter, good) and back-translation as a way to assess quality (some companies, bad)


# imc on 3 Oct 2006 8:55 AM:

Un petit d'un petit

S'étonne aux Halles

Un petit d'un petit

Ah! degrés te fallent

Indolent qui ne sort cesse

Indolent qui ne se mène

Qu'importe un petit d'un petit

Tout Gai de Reguennes

# Elena Temnova on 9 Oct 2006 4:18 AM:

Sometimes a phrase, especially a title of a book, film etc., which sounds well in the original language produce quite a different after being translated into another languauge. I know French well enough, and I can tell that the translation Tous les homes du Président is only way to translate the title in question (don't forget that French has no possessive case). On the other hand, the Russian translation of this phrase sounds even more picturesque than the original phrase :))) Since "рать" is a pretty old word meaning "warrior-host", whereas a more exact translation "Все люди президента" would be completely tasteless.

Surely, a machine (a mean a computer-aided translation software) cannot catch all these nuances, and in such a domain a machine translation system would never compete with a human translator.

# Mélissa on 25 Jan 2009 1:59 AM:

Peut-tu me prêter une gomme ?

# Mélissa on 25 Jan 2009 2:01 AM:

Je sais !Est-ce que peut l'épeler ?

Traduire en anglais on 7 Oct 2009 3:14 PM:

Il est vrai qu'il est très difficile de faire une traduction en anglais, à moins de bien maîtriser cette langue.

Car il existe plusieurs vocabulaires.

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