Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Adventures of an inexpert reader of French language newspapers ...

Un nouveau pot vert à la marque Activia de Danone a fait son apparition dans les rayons des supermarchés aux Etats-Unis depuis quelques jours. Sur l'emballage un mot magique, grec, et des mentions tout aussi évocatrices pour le consommateur américain : 0 % de gras, deux fois plus de protéines. 
Avec cette composition, encensée par les experts de la diététique, le yaourt grec fait un tabac outre-Atlantique. Dans un supermarché à l'enseigne Pathmark de la banlieue de New York, il représente près d'un tiers des produits en rayon.
To call my French "rusty," would imply it was ever a steely, gleaming precision instrument. It was never thus. Comme un fou, peut-être, I elected to study French when given the opportunity to choose a language in middle school. "One day, I will live in Paris, a successful expat novelist drinking espresso in cafés on the shores of the Seine," 11-year-old me thought. It's possible that, in my daydreams, I was wearing a jaunty beret and had a pet monkey. (Look, if you weren't a pretentious idiot as an 11-year-old, I can only take my lumps and congratulate you on your advanced development as pre-teen.)

Photo by Le Xuan-Cung on flickr
Anyways, I've kept tabs on a few French-language blogs over the years, and had a stream of French language headlines pour through my reader feed. (They're interesting for perspective on American politics, not always very liberal as you might think, immigration is not exactly a settled topic and xenophobia seems to be more of a problem there than here; but, recently also for perspective on the struggle for gay rights as marriage equality makes gains overseas.) Estimating generously, maybe a quarter of it makes sense to me. But I will go a few articles and try to figure them out. Online translators occasionally helped, but were often more like those silly text generators that spewed gibberish to fill fake publications in publicity materials. Incapable of handling idiom, or even standard usage, they were good for maybe helping with a translation of a word, but almost never with the meaning. Over the last few years though, they've been getting better and Google Translate, while still a muddle, at least provides useful clues now is convenient in the browser. Still the mysteries of literal translations generally provoke a chuckle.

In the article above, which I read because we buy greek yogurt, despite the fact I can barely choke it down and frequently gag in the effort, the phrase fait un tabac caught my eye. I took it mean "does very well," or something to that effect, but tabac I understood to be 'tobacco' so I wondered if it could an expression like our 'making a killing.' Sure enough, Google Translate rendered it as "make a tobacco," but the link I imagined between 'tobacco' and 'killing' doesn't seem to be there, I think the link is more along the lines of people loving something as much as they love to smoke to tobacco. The nicotine effect, not the carcinogenic. No surprise there given the European love of cigarettes, and the relatively recent, relative to tobacco's introduction to European culture, understanding of smoking as a health hazard.

Attempting to contribute an alternative translation using Transalate turned out to be a bit more difficult than I expected, where I would put "diet experts" instead of "experts of diet" the way the translation groups the French words didn't allow for my English to map directly to the group of words I was trying to offer a translation. A sign, perhaps, that online translators are going to be overly literal and resistant to crowd-sourced fixing for a while yet.

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