or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Frames of Mind

Anybody who's ever studied a foreign language knows what a minefield translation is. Your teacher asks you to write a few paragraphs in the language you're studying. Like a fool, you write it out first in English, then set about translating it. And then you're fucked.

It's hard to do! It's hard enough to translate a straightforward sentence such as this one, but when you have to deal with idiomatic phrases such as "out in left field", you don't have a chance.

Machine translation's no better. Lots of English words have many meanings, some of them loosely allied in a cloud, others completely off by themselves. Take "frame", for instance. It has a collection of meanings related to support and structure: the skeleton of a house, your own physical build, the undercarriage of a car, the non-lens part of a pair of glasses. Then there are lots of one-offs, such as a tenth of a game of bowling or a single image from a movie, and these senses may or may not be related in some way to the main sense. And those are just the nouns!

So if you are an American company such as Structural Industries, and you make picture frames, and you're forced to put French on the products you want to sell in Canada, what do you do? Do you hire a translator? One would think so, but maybe you just don't think you have the time or the money, so you go to some free online translation service. And this is what you end up with on a 12x12 frame meant to hold a record-album cover or a scrapbook page:



"Armature". Very nice.

A picture-frame in French is "un cadre". An armature is, well, something else altogether. In both English and French, it's the reinforcing structure inside something such as a sculpture; it's inside, not outside, which is a pretty dramatic difference. An armature is still a framework, but it isn't a picture frame.

French "cadre", by the way, is of course the source of English "cadre", meaning "group of workers" or "group of military officers". It's a metaphorical extension of a frame as something enclosing a collection of things. The word comes from Latin "quadrum", "square".


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