Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Back in the days when I was working on the outskirts of Paris for the Ilog software company, my job consisted mainly of writing technical manuals in English. Since most of my colleagues were French, they described their software creations in their mother tongue, and I was often called upon to translate these raw descriptions into basic English, before beefing them up into clear didactic documentation. At that time, I disposed of numerous powerful computing tools, some of which exploited the Unix system [ancestor of Linux]. Today, in fact, my word-processing arsenal is even more powerful, and it has the advantage of sitting on my desktop in my bedroom looking out onto the mountains... so, I can't complain about the speed of technological progress!

During my Ilog years, from 1989 until my departure for the Dauphiné in 1993, I acquired a taste for Unix wizardry. Not only did I use a complicated word-processing tool named LaTeX [designed by Donald Knuth, above all, for professional typesetting of mathematical stuff], but I developed (and documented, of course) my own thing named CatMan, to assist me in translating from French into English.

Exploiting a huge collection of French segments and their English equivalents, and activated by Unix scripts incorporating commands such as sed and awk [which might be familiar to readers who use Linux], my CatMan approach did a lot of the basic translating for me, and provided me with a more-or-less understandable but atrociously disjointed pseudo-English text, which I then had to transform manually into correct English. Observers [including Pierre Haren, the Ilog chief] were never convinced, understandably, that my CatMan gadget was an effective translation tool, because it seemed to produce junk, but I always felt that, in the long run, it saved me time and effort.

This morning, while playing around with the web, I came upon a ridiculous website, allegedly in English, that proposes an explanation of what they call a "seat". Somebody has obviously used a computer to translate French into pseudo-English. To understand this article, you have to undo the translation by replacing "seat" by "siege". It's true that a siège, in French, can be a thing you sit on... but not in a military context. Funnily, the computer was so dumb that it didn't realize that you can obtain a perfectly plausible translation of siège simply by removing the accent. To be more correct, accusations of stupidity should be addressed, not to the computer, but to the people who dared to set up this idiotic website.

According to the Evangelist Matthew [26, 41], "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". A clueless computer once interpreted this as a comment concerning a Biblical tavern, and came out with the following paraphrase: "They serve powerful liquor, but their meat is insipid."

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