French translation of a mathematics joke
November 11, 2020 7:29 PM   Subscribe

"A topologist is a person who cannot tell the difference between a coffee mug and a doughnut" is a popular mathematics joke. It relies on the mug and the doughnut having a single hole, making them topologically equivalent. If you translated this to French, the words for doughnut and mug would need to imply the existence of the hole. It looks like beignets are usually rectangular. Is the loan word donut understood to mean the torus shape? Is there a term for coffee mug that implies a handle? How would you best translate this? Thanks!
posted by Behemoth, in no. 302-bis, with the Browning to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm far from fluent, but on the web, the most common translation of the joke seems to be "tasse de café" and "beignet", or just "une tasse" and "beignet" but there are some that use "un donut's."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:52 PM on November 11, 2020

Donut => beigne
Mug => tasse
posted by WaterAndPixels at 8:10 PM on November 11, 2020

Best answer: Donut is not french, there is no "un donut". Well maybe in France since they don't seem to care too much about avoid borrowed words.

You could say a "tasse a café" instead of only saying "tasse", but "tasse DE café" implies the mug is filled with coffee where "tasse A café" implies the mug is used for coffee. "Tasse" implies a handle, except if you're talking about a measuring cup or the imperial unit, which is also called a "tasse".
posted by WaterAndPixels at 8:17 PM on November 11, 2020

The tasse part seems fine because it has a handle but I just looked at about a hundred pictures of beignets and not a one had a hole. So it's a failure as a 'translation' of the joke, tantamount to saying a topologist can't distinguish a coffee mug from a waffle—nonsense!
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:23 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

In Quebec "beigne" is the word for donut, but I'm not sure whether that's just a French Canadian thing.

I suspect that the Google Image results for "beignet" are biased since in English/US "beignet" does refer very specifically to the square kind, but that may not be the case in France.

Agree that "tasse a café" is the best way to refer to a coffee mug.
posted by mekily at 8:34 PM on November 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Would a Paris-Brest be a suitable replacement for donut?
posted by miguelcervantes at 8:37 PM on November 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think many (most?) French speakers are familiar with the toroidal American donut and would understand from context that this is what is meant by “beignet” here.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:54 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I tried translating bagel into French and it also came up as beignet.
posted by metahawk at 8:56 PM on November 11, 2020

Best answer: The joke seems to already show up in Voir (a Québecois/Montréalais publication) as C’est pourquoi on dit qu’une topologiste est une personne qui ne fait pas la différence entre une tasse et un beigne, puisque ces deux objets sont pour elle équivalents!
posted by urbanlenny at 9:23 PM on November 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

Though as someone who is not a native francophone but has long lived and worked in a bilingual setting (working on the Québec side of Canada's National Capital Region) and sees how the language plays out in reality , I personally would translate this for maximum clarity as "un donut", since the concept is acceptable/preferred to refer to the beigne with a hole in it in France and no matter how much the Quebecois insist on "proper French words" the average person would likely call that a donut in casual speech, even if Tim Horton's, our national (though foreign-owned) donut chain, calls it a beigne.
posted by urbanlenny at 9:31 PM on November 11, 2020

just looked up some fast food menus in france and it seems that they are sold as "le donut"
posted by alchemist at 10:22 PM on November 11, 2020

In metropolitan French, both "un donut" and "un mug" are widely used words understood by everyone to mean exactly what they look like they mean.
posted by os tuberoes at 11:32 PM on November 11, 2020

translation from english to french: not homeomorphic, risks destroying structure of punchline.

tangentially, on the topic of structure-preserving translations:

> A Void, translated from the original French La Disparition (lit. "The Disappearance"), is a 300-page French lipogrammatic novel, written in 1969 by Georges Perec, entirely without using the letter e, following Oulipo constraints. It was translated into English by Gilbert Adair, with the title A Void, for which he won the Scott Moncrieff Prize in 1995. [...] All translators have imposed upon themselves a similar lipogrammatic constraint to the original, avoiding the most commonly used letter of the alphabet.

-- wiki/A_Void
posted by are-coral-made at 12:01 AM on November 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

tasse a café means cup has coffee, whatever that means. It should be tasse à café.
Beignet is a translation of the word fritter
The French are just as likely to use the UK spelling, i.e. doughnut
posted by TheRaven at 1:31 AM on November 12, 2020

I hardly know French but it seems like beigne and beignet are two different things, right? French Wikipedia says "Un beigne, aussi appelé donut, est un type de beignet de forme annulaire" and even "Par extension, le trou de beigne, un type de pâtisserie fait à partir de la même pâte que le donut." So it looks like, at least in some version of French, beignes are beignets that are specifically doughnut shaped. Google image search backs this up.

Whether this holds for all dialects of French is an exercise left to the reader.
posted by trig at 3:29 AM on November 12, 2020

I agree that Paris-Brest is your best bet for a pastry here.

If you want to refer to a coffee-drinking vessel that definitely has a handle, you could use demi-tasse.
posted by STFUDonnie at 4:02 AM on November 12, 2020

Just want to point out that the handle isn't necessary for the joke to work from a topologist's point of view -- the opening of the mug is the hole, as is the through-hole of a donut.* In that sense, you could also go with a pastry that has a recess in the center, such as a custard tart, so long as that center was deep enough to be considered a hole (even if it's not a through hole, like a donut).

*Not all topologists agree on the definition of a hole, so it could be argued that a mug/cup and donuts are or are not both actually holes.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:06 AM on November 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

One classic way topologists distinguish between a donut and a solid blob is basically by embedding a loop in the object and seeing whether it can be continuously shrunk to a point while staying embedded in the object.

It's pretty obvious that you can do that with a solid blob. But with a donut, if you draw loop around the hole, for example, there's no way to shrink it down to a point.

So, no, topology does not treat a sufficiently deep recess as the same as a hole.
posted by floppyroofing at 6:22 AM on November 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

metahawk: "I tried translating bagel into French and it also came up as beignet."

This sounds like a setup for a sitcom episode.

FWIW, French Wikipedia has separate articles for "donut" and "bagel," with the warning "Ne doit pas être confondu avec donut."
posted by adamrice at 7:55 AM on November 12, 2020

The suffix -ette or -et refers to a smaller or lesser version of something. For example you have a dining room and a small alcove off the kitchen you could eat in called a dinette. Also think of cigar and cigarette, flannel suitable for a sturdy suit and flannelette suitable for a night shirt, statue and statuette, etc.

In French beigne is a doughnut and beignet is what we would call a doughnut hole, or a Timbit. The first word has one syllable, "bane" (the n has a sort of nasal y sound mixed in) and the second word has a silent t on the end that indicates you pronounce the e at the end "bane-yay" The world beigne is masculine so the diminutive form of the word gets a masculine ending, not a feminine one - et, not - ette.

But the word beigne also means a slap or a punch and the word beignet also means a lump. If you said "Je le donne un beigne," - I gave him a doughnut, the listener might think you were saying you gave him a smack across the face. It is sometimes clearer to say "Je le donne un beignet" as in that context the listener knows you gave him a bit of fried sweet dough. In contrast in English if you said "I gave him a lump" people might think you had given him swift smack that had caused some swelling.

The reason doughnuts are torus shaped is because that particular shape makes them unstable enough that when they have been cooking in a deep fryer they float on the top until the bottom side of them is cooked at which point they neatly flip over so the top side also cooks. Any shape may flip over but that one seems to have a higher rate of flipping which saves the risk to the cook of reaching into a kettle of boiling oil that could spit at them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:16 AM on November 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just want to point out that the handle isn't necessary for the joke to work from a topologist's point of view

My understanding has always been that the handle is a key part of it. The analog to what you refer to as the "through-hole of a donut" is the hole through the handle, while the inside of the mug itself is not topologically a hole at all because it is continuous. But as I said in the other thread, IANAT.
posted by solotoro at 9:58 AM on November 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm a topologist and the handle is most definitely the part that is the "hole". A recessed surface like the inside of a mug is most definitely not a hole, and that isn't something topologists disagree on.
posted by augustimagination at 10:48 AM on November 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

By the way, a tiny nitpick: we're thinking of the donut as a solid ring, but mathematicians usually use the word "torus" to refer to the hollow shape that looks like just the *surface* of a donut.

As a physical model for a torus, an inner tube might be a better example than a donut. It really has *two* holes, the hole in the middle, and the cavity running around the inside of the tube, that you pump air into....

posted by floppyroofing at 11:46 AM on November 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

"I'm a topologist and the handle is most definitely the part that is the "hole". A recessed surface like the inside of a mug is most definitely not a hole, and that isn't something topologists disagree on."

My apologies, I stand corrected!
posted by iamkimiam at 2:50 PM on November 12, 2020

Late to the party, but like os tuberoes says above, everyone in France except perhaps some very old people know what a mug and a donut are (blame McDonalds for the latter). I even suspect that donut-style beignets (which can be found in every pastry shop) are more popular today than regular beignets.
posted by elgilito at 8:59 AM on November 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

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