Asking, "ou est le banc" won't cut it here.
September 29, 2008 6:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I teach myself to read and translate French at the intermediate level in the next six weeks?

I have to take a translation exam. In six weeks. In French. The amount of French I know is best categorized as "un tres petit peu." Using Sandberg's "French for Reading," can I teach myself enough to fulfill the exam? Its requirements are translating 2 200-word passages of intermediate prose (New York Times or New Yorker level) in two hours with the help of a dictionary. Any dictionary I want. Can I do this, given that I'm a fast learner? I can't delay the exam. I'd appreciate: strategies, tips, dictionary suggestions.

Anon because this is pretty embarrassing. For me, anyway.
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously, this is going to be tough, especially if you don't know any closely-related languages. I'd imagine you could do it, although it would be much, much easier if you were doing French-English--I can't tell which direction your exam expects you to work in.

Rosetta Stone is supposed to be good, although I gather it's aimed at conversational fluency.

I don't have any general tips on translation, but it might help if you spend some time with Le Monde Diplomatique, which has an English translation online. Thus you could try, for example, to work your way through this article to work on your reading fluency and then check your understanding with this translation, or vice versa if you feel up to attempting your English-French translation. The translation of this article, at least, looks fairly literal to me.
posted by col_pogo at 6:55 PM on September 29, 2008

FWIW, I think Sandberg's book is the best there is. You might want to supplement it with a good reference grammar. 400 words in 2 hours is pretty basic; I give translation exams for grad students in my program and I usually set 600-800 words in French or Italian, somewhat fewer in German or Dutch. If you can make it to the end of Sandberg without cheating, you should be in good shape. The best skill to have is to recognize what function (part of speech) each word serves in the sentence. I find that students who fail tend to do so because they have little grasp of grammar, not because their vocabulary is weak. (OTOH, if they don't recognize standard phrases such as "il y a," there's not much hope.)

There are some good vocabulary aids out there, but they're rarely geared to intellectual discourse; they're much more practical. Klett's Gründwortschatz Französisch is the best I've found. On the other hand, if you have a good library to hand you might spend some time with Jacques van Roey et al., Dictionnaire des/dictionary of Faux Amis français-anglais/English-French, which is the best guide I know to those nasty words that look the same but have distinct meanings. It's about $130 from Amazon but any good library should have a copy. I curse the anonymous postal worker in France or the US who was responsible for my copy vanishing somewhere between Paris and Massachusetts.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:03 PM on September 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I hear that Skype has all kinds of language-practice-partner community stuff set up. As in: fire up Skype and talk to someone in a language you're trying to learn. It doesn't sound like total immersion is an option for you although it would obviously be the single best bang for your very small buck. Next best thing should be lots of conversations with natives. Or does that not play so much to the test you need to pass?
posted by scarabic at 8:35 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mod note: This is a followup comment from the anonymous poster.

- Yes, the exam is French-to-English. Thanks for advice so far.

- I don't need to actually speak or understand spoken French, nor write it, just translate from French to English. This isn't to say that Rosetta Stone or other suggestions wouldn't work. Just wanted to clarify that the exam is supposed to help me use documents written in French, though I probably never will--I may never use this again after the exam.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:44 PM on September 29, 2008

Six semaines? Je pence très dur, mais tu dois lire rien sauf le français jusqu'à ce moment-là. Alors wikipedia français, les formes français, des romans, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:34 PM on September 29, 2008

I've been living in France nearly three years and reading is the aspect of the language I consider myself most competent at. Being surrounded by French ads, newspapers, etc. helps.

Like jeffburdges said, nothing but French from now till then. Read with a dictionary at your side. Or, for more pedestrian French. Also, pick up a bi-lingual book or two. They sell many of the classics at Amazon.

Pay close attention to negations, as well as past/future tenses which are used more often in print than conversation. Six weeks is a short amount of time, but definitely possibly. Bonne chance.
posted by DefendBrooklyn at 5:01 AM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

And please don't follow jeffburdges, who clearly doesn't know French.

Six semaines? Je pense qu'il sera très dur, mais tu ne dois lire rien que le français jusqu'à ce moment. Alors le wikipédia français, les formulaires français, des romans, etc. [not sure what is meant by formes but it is feminine in French, therefore formes françaises].
posted by TheRaven at 6:11 AM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is this the ATA certification exam? I've been a translator for 19 years (not of French) and if that's the test, and if you're at the petit-peu level, I'm going to say flat-out, no, you cannot prepare yourself sufficiently in six weeks, and if you've already paid for the test, you've wasted your money.

That test is hard. They're not just testing whether you can correctly map words and grammar, they're testing whether you can successfully recognize unifying themes and represent them in your translation, things like that. I haven't taken the test myself, but I have sat through a study session for it, and I would not be confident about my chances of passing on the first try. I've got very experienced colleagues who didn't pass it on their first try. From what I understand, most people don't.

Also, fwiw, if it is the ATA exam, you can bring all the paper references you want, not just one. Some people bring their dictionaries in on a cart.
posted by adamrice at 7:19 AM on September 30, 2008

When you say six weeks do you mean you have all day everyday for six weeks? (ie is this going to be a full time thing, 'work', 9-5, 6 days a week for 6 weeks?

Or just something to while away the evenings?

( it seems to me that it would take a lot of time and effort in the next 6 weeks to get there.)
posted by mary8nne at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2008

follow-up from the OP
No it is not the ATA exam. It's just an exam in my graduate programme. They're really just going to pick out, like, 200 words from Le Monde and 200 from an older source. So the standards are quite a bit lower than for ATA. It's just so I might use French sources in my history studies. Note that I am not a historian of France or a Francophone country. It's just a hoop.

And no, not 6 weeks all day every day. Maybe an hour or two a day, using the Sandberg book. Any thoughts on maximizing the use of that book would be great, too.
posted by jessamyn at 8:16 AM on September 30, 2008

start learning the basic grammar. You neither need to know the details or very many nouns, it's just important to be able to recognize simple sentence construction.

Know the meaning of common prepositions, etc, like "des/du/de la" "à/aux" "pour"

Being familiar with conjugations of the verbs avoir (to have), être (to be), aller (to go), faire (to do or make) and some of their (esp. idiomatic) uses is important. Know how to recognize different key tenses and conjugations (passé composé, présent, futur, imparfait.) Anyway, I think this is definitely possible. Jump right in as soon as you can and start reading Le Monde. The sooner you become familiar with how french looks, and what words transpose easily into english and how, the better. For example, here's a leading sentence on the first page:

"Minute par minute : la situation des Bourses, les actions menées par les gouvernements et les banques centrales pour renflouer les établissements bancaires."

Without looking anything up, and with a very small knowledge of French, you could probably figure out that this says (more or less, very roughly): "Minute by minute: the situation of ______, the actions ______ by the governments and the central banks to _______ the banking establishments."

Then it's just a quick dictionary run to fill in the blanks, which hopefully you could even work out on your own SAT stye. Bourses might be defined as "scholarship" or "grant", menée you can recognize as a conjugation of "mener" which means "to lead", renflouer you look up to mean "to bail out." So, "Minute by minute: the loan situation, the actions taken by the governments and central banks to bail out the banking establishments."

You could probably leave it less polished than that and still be okay.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:10 AM on September 30, 2008

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