Reading Proust via Google

New York Times testdrove Google Translate and is very much taken by it. Being a multilingual person who sometimes rely on Google Translate, I decided that I might try it too. And here it is:

For French, New York Times did it with Le Petit Prince, which is something you would give a 2nd grader in France to translate to English. If you have to do it right, you have to test it with something more complex. Much more complex. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu perhaps? Why not? The most famous scene in the books–which even those who haven’t read the book know–is on involuntary memories caused by madeleine cakes. The original reads like this:

“Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse, ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi.”

Google says:

“She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called madeleines Classified seem to have been molded in the fluted valve of a shell of Saint-Jacques. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a piece of cake. But at the very moment the draft mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I shuddered, aware of what was happening to me extraordinary. An exquisite pleasure had invaded, isolated, without the notion of its cause. He had at once the vicissitudes of life indifferent, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory similarly wrought by love, filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”

A wonderful translation by C.K. Moncrieff, an old Wykehamist himself:

“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself”.

I don’t know why Google would go with “madeleines Classified” for “Petites Madeleines“, but it is funny how both Google and Moncrieff decided that “triste lendemain” is “depressing morrow”. I would have gone for sad tomorrow instead but I am neither a genius or a mechanical bot (you decide which is which). Google’s translation just becomes too painful to read after this point, but I like its ending: “this essence was not in me, it was me” better. It has some solemnity to it. Some dignity to it.

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