Translating French into English

… using your own skills, not babelfish or Google translate, that is.

Fall is coming, and everyone’s going back to school. While browsing a bulletin board at the local movie theater, an ad for a class on French translation caught my eye. I realized that it had been over a year since my last course (Geology 601, Seminar in Sedimentary Geology), and really, that’s just too long a gap. Plus, French! Examining my weekly commitments, I decided that I had room to take on another one.

One reason I haven’t taken more language classes in recent years is that, lacking some real-world setting in which I would need to use those skills, I know whatever I’d learn would fade gradually after the class ended. But it occurred to me that this could be different. Polishing up reading and translation skills would mean that I could return to my French copy of “Fellowship of the Ring” or “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Little Prince” (or several others I have). I could browse French websites and news articles. It’s a skill I could more realistically have a chance to retain. And I was curious: how would a course teach you to translate, in a way different from a regular language class that teaches you more vocabulary and grammar? Why the specialization?

So I applied to the local community college and was accepted just six hours later. The textbook is a photocopied version of French for Reading Knowledge. It seems that a focus on reading can indeed be a bit different from a regular language class; I think it may be optimized for you to simply acquire a mapping of French constructions into English ones. The result almost certainly is not true fluency, since you need not generate your own constructions or worry about pronunciation or anything like that. This seems a little like cheating, except that the reading skill alone can have real value. Some people take this sort of class to be able to read technical articles related to their research that have not yet been translated. And as above, it’s the skill you could most likely keep practiced even if you don’t live in a French-speaking country.

Classes with similar titles are offered at other schools. The “French for Reading Knowledge” course at UW Madison fulfills a graduate student foreign language requirement. At the conclusion of the class, you must take a one-hour translation test. Want to try your own hand? Here’s a PDF version of their Fall 2008 exam, which is a five-paragraph bit about Vladimir Nabokov. You’re permitted a French-English dictionary.

I’m eager to see how this class works out. Will we be assigned specific texts, or will we be encouraged to choose our own? I’m envisioning some interesting discussions about literal translations versus those that deviate from the actual words but capture more of the sense, style, or feel of a passage. Will we talk about translating poems and songs, which are extra-challenging due to both a need for non-literalism and a desire to preserve rhyme and meter? Class doesn’t start until September 3, and I already have a host of questions to ask!

Where library shelf entropy comes from

During my latest volunteer time at the library, I was asked to shelve more books. (Not that I really needed asking—I was already heading for the shelving carts.) I was given four shelves’ worth of “E” books (about 150 books, or probably 1/3 of the library’s holdings in that section). I think “E” stands for “Elementary”; these are books marked as Level 1, 2, or 3, which I gather is something like grades 1-3. At any rate, when I reached the “E” section, I found that it was already in severe disarray. So I sat down (these shelves are at kids’ height) and started shelf-reading and swapping books back into proper order.

During this process, I observed first-hand three specific sources of shelf entropy:

  • A toddler playing the “game” of remove-and-replace-randomly. (Possibly an attempt to imitate what I was doing, but not with any sense of the actual order.)
  • An indecisive and sulky 6-year-old who was told by her mother to “get 12 books”. She’d pull out a book, glance at it, and either thrust it back onto the shelf somewhere else, or … throw it on the ground.
  • The same 6-year-old’s embarrassed mother, who would pick up each discarded book and put it back somewhere on the shelf… not only in some new location, but with the spine facing inward! While this made it easy to spot misplaced books, I was puzzled as to how anyone would assume that that’s the proper thing to do in a library. Especially while I’m sitting two feet away obviously ordering the books myself.

As I worked, I overheard one of the children’s librarians advising an adult reader, who was participating in the library’s Literacy tutoring program and wanted to know which books to start with. The librarian said,

“Here’s the advice I give kids: the rule of 5. Open the book and read the first page. Each time you reach a word you don’t know, count it on a finger. If you get to 5 by the end of the first page, the book is too hard. If you only get to 1, it’s too easy. Find a book somewhere in the middle, and that will mean you’re learning.”

This advice struck me in two ways. First, how long has it been since I deliberately tried to find an English book to read that would actively stretch my vocabulary? And second, my, how wonderful it would be to have access to a huge selection of children’s books in whatever foreign language I wanted to learn! I’ve picked up kids’ books in Japanese and French on various trips, but they’re harder to come by here, and often pricey to order remotely. But a library! That would be perfect! Do the ESL learners here know how lucky they are? :) And are they aware of their anti-entropic efforts?

“The pursuit of knowledge is my own little battle against the second law of thermodynamics.” – Jeff Vinocur

How to make a pie crust

I made my first pie the other day—and followed it with my second pie a few days later. They provided the perfect final destination for my nectarine tree’s bounty. There’s something satisfying about making a pie and the crust and using your own homegrown fruit! Now if only I’d grown some sugarcane, harvested wheat, and milked my own cow… that would have been my own pie!

Now, while making pie-filling is trivial, making a good pie crust requires a bit more effort. I didn’t have the vegetable shortening that the recipe called for, so I substituted butter. I baked the first pie on an infernally hot day, and as I was squishing the butter into the flour, it was melting all over the place. The result was a gooey, sticky dough. I rolled it out anyway, with the liberal use of additional flour, using 2/3 of the dough for the bottom and the last 1/3 on top as the pie cover. And it turned out great.

But I suspected that the dough wasn’t supposed to be quite like that, and consultation with other pie-making friends confirmed this. So when I rolled up my sleeves to bake the second pie, I incorporated two useful tips I’d received.

  • Instead of trying to cut or mash the butter into the the flour, freeze the butter and then grate it with a cheese grater.
  • Instead of flailing around with rolling pin and flour, and scraping the dough off the cutting board with a knife, chill the dough and then roll it between two sheets of wax paper.

Both of these suggestions worked brilliantly, even though I didn’t bother to freeze the butter or chill the dough! I’d had success with the cheese grater before, when making biscuits, and it worked perfectly here—faster and less messy than other methods, and the mixture I got out was the appropriate “mealy” consistency, actually needing the recommended couple of tablespoons of water that caused it to glom into a dough.

The wax paper trick is so fabulous that I wonder why it isn’t a staple of all pie recipes. (The one I have recommends rolling out the dough, folding it in half, lifting it into the pan (scraping with a knife if needed), and then unfolding it.) The wax paper not only saves you from having to add any flour (thereby altering the consistency slightly), but it is trivial to transfer the flattened dough into the pie pan (top or bottom) without breaking it; you simply invert the empty pie pan over the bottom crust, flip, and peel off the paper, and later flip the top crust onto the filled pie and again just peel off the paper. My wax paper worked a couple of wrinkles into itself, which left an interesting linear pattern on my pie crust, which I left because I liked it.

The end result with pie #2? A tasty, satisfying, even-thickness, flaky pie crust, with minimal effort.

Never content, friends are now giving me tips on cosmetic improvements, like crimping or fluting the pie crust edges, carving my initials in the pie top, or crafting a lattice. I’ll be sure to share any interesting future developments.

Thoreau’s moonlight and mountains

Henry David Thoreau was a fascinating character: intense, passionate, obnoxious, arrogant, and possessed of a lyrical mind. I cannot help but like the man, even as he exasperates. He was given to making jabs at society, the government, technology, law, his neighbors, and anyone who wanted to give him advice:

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”

Yet he had his own heroes, and looked up to Emerson (as just one example) enough to follow the latter’s advice on variety of subjects.

Walden itself starts humbly enough:

“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life…”

but quickly moves on to convey a sort of impatience with us as readers, lazy desperate folk that we are; if only we would wake up and realize the brilliance of his own plan, that we could live mortgage-free and debt-free by simply walking into the woods, building our own simple houses, and giving up meat.

Thoreau is most pleasurable to read when he is least snarky (he does love a good pun), as when advocating an open and curious approach to life:

“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries each day, with new experience and character.”

or when he is exalting in the beauty of his beloved Pond and its surroundings:

“Sky water. It needs no fence. […] a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this is the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”

And I know what he means when he says he cannot spare his moonlight (and I know he does not mean that he dislikes people).

And he offers some other valuable ideas, aside from the musings on solitude and self-sufficiency that pepper Walden:

“… the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

And most everyone’s heard the bit about why he went to the woods in the first place. But this quote perhaps is the one that will stick with me most, for now:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

We have so very many lives to live! As many as we choose. Kudos to Thoreau for being willing to try out his Walden experiment and, when he’d learned what he wanted, to move on. Everything changes.