How not to get trapped by a translation app

Please welcome Christine Camm, an expert French-English translator whom I met recently via social media. Despite my being bilingual English-French myself I’ve often wondered how the hell professional translators manage to sleep at night, given the ridiculous differences between these two lingos.

And … how English speakers, in particular, manage to destroy whatever co-comprehension there might remain considering that the Brits still feel the French will understand their English provided that they shout it loudly enough, and the French think anyone living from the White Cliffs of Dover northwards is a totally unhinged rosbif who probably needs not only French lessons but also to stop shouting and get a life.
 article about english to french translation

Christine takes up the story with a charming anecdote … 

A young London couple, Carol and Simon, start planning their next short holiday

“Let’s go to Paris,” suggests Simon.

Carol raises one eyebrow and instantly pictures the two of them on a boat, gently floating along the Seine past Notre Dame, sipping champagne and grabbing that all important click of the sun setting behind the Eiffel Tower against the deep blue Parisian sky. The air is warm and accordion music is gently playing.

A harsh reality check brings the eyebrow down and both eyebrows knit together in a complicit reminder that neither of them speaks French.

Wanting to go to Paris and get the most of it, Carol’s eyes sweep upwards to the right as she remembers an advert for a translation app for her new smartphone. Her mouth widens and the words burst out of her mouth as if in a rush to reach Simon’s ears before he changes his mind.

“Let’s do it!” she blurts out.

Pleasantly surprised, Simon starts clicking away at his keyboard and comes up with a romantic weekend getaway from London to Paris for two. In five clicks their mini-break is booked.

His words “Your wish is my command” are lovingly bestowed on Carol, whose jaw drops in happy surprise whilst her fingers simultaneously flick a message to her BFF with the news.

The reply is almost instant. “You can’t go on a bateau-mouche! It’s a boat full of flies! Look . . .”

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A boat full of flies…

The next text shows the translation of bateau-mouche to be boat-fly and she even wonders if it’s a new type of boat-drone that will take off from the water and give her a cool aerial shot of the Eiffel tower.

Peering over Carol’s shoulder, Simon is shaking his head from side to side and exhaling heavily in despair. “It’s the name of the type of boat for tourists that take you along the Seine, Carol!  Good grief girl, don’t you know that?”

“Perhaps we should learn a bit of French before we go?” suggests Carol.

“No need” retorts Simon “just download that app you found the other week.  We can hold our phone out and it will do all the translation for us.”

The following month…

The sun is beating gently down on two figures strolling along the bank of the Seine: Carol and Simon are walking hand in hand to their boat ride.

After a long, admiring silence of appreciation for the moment, Simon is the first to speak: “This is marvellous. Let’s have our meal on the boat – that would be amazing!”

Carol looked into his eyes and he could feel her hand squeezing his in blissful acceptance.

Later, at dinner…

“Voilà?” utters the waiter as he deftly pours champagne into each of their glasses. “Vous voulez un oeuf avec la salade?”

Perplexed, Carol wonders why he is asking them if they’ve had enough already.

“Enough? Enough?” she repeats, “Oui, oui” she answers feeling proud she managed some French there, looking at the plate full of lettuce. There was clearly enough there!

The waiter slides away discreetly only to come back with a dish of hard-boiled eggs.

“Huh?” I said “enough” she retorts.

“Oui, un oeuf” nods the waiter, pointing at an egg, proud of himself for having communicated successfully with this rosbif.

She thrusts the word ‘enough’ on her phone app in his direction with the translated word assez for him to read.

article about English-French transaltion

Is un oeuf enough?

Seeing Carol’s face all confused, the waiter realises something wasn’t right.

“C’est clair – il y a un problème?”

“Claire?” pipes up Simon, “No, this is Carol”, a little too fast for Carol’s liking.

Suspicious of hearing the name Claire, Carol wonders if Simon has been here before with a secret girlfriend. The previously blissful acceptance seemed to be going pear-shaped.

The waiter, sensing something was awry backs off, leaving the guilty egg on the table.

“Who’s Claire?” she demands.

Nothing was going to be right for Simon now. He reaches for Carol’s hand but it’s not there any more. In fact, she is already standing up, a murderous gleam in her eyes.

If only they had paid more attention to their French lessons at school

The poor, innocent victims of not being able to understand enough French even to enjoy the humour of a misunderstanding, Simon and Carol disembark and take separate trains back to London.

We all pause for a flashback to the dark, classroom days of chanting the verb être a million times then never really using it like that in real life.

Oh the horror!

Many teachers were taught to teach French like that, and now I cringe at the very thought of how many people will have been put off the fun aspect of learning French.

The damage was done, though. And many decided that French was “not for me, nah. I’ll stick with the app, merci!”

Translation apps would struggle with the above story – despite being carefully chosen to include idiom in context, complex sentence structures, multiple adjectives and compound words, to mention but a few. Much as translation apps are evolving, learning a language in realistic situations and learning to cope in even the simplest of conversations will never be replaced digitally.

article about english - french translation

Translation app is not ‘appy.

The French language is as rich in metaphors, similes and beautiful cultural connotations as the English language is. If only we had all been able to appreciate this right from the beginning rather than learning just for an exam, maybe we would have loved our language learning more.

As for Simon and Carol…

…They decided to learn to speak French. Lo and behold, they ended up in the same French class! This time around, nothing was lost in the translation app and they went back to Paris and enjoyed talking with people in French.

As a novice writer, Simon found out that through learning French, he enriched his own English writing skills.  He found that there were hundreds of French words already in his head without him having ever known. He learnt how to bring them into his own writing to enrich his understanding of visualising descriptions, and to build in more worldly cultural references so creating a better experience for his readers.

Christine Camm, article on French - English translation on How To Write Better with Suzan St Maur

Christine Camm

Christine Camm is English and lives in the South West of France. As an international teacher, many know her as the person who gets them speaking French confidently. She spent the past 30+ years teaching multiple languages internationally, and helping other teachers ensure their learners got the best experience.

Whether you’ve already started learning some French, but just aren’t getting to move on and speak confidently, or you want to learn but are overwhelmed by the huge amount of material and courses out there, Christine can help you.

“If French is a language you have regrets about not continuing,” says Christine, “try my free Masterclass. This reveals the 4 steps you need to unleash those confident, meaningful French conversations.”