Pop Culture

The Palm Pre’s Poor French – Le Palm Pré coule son français


By Hervé St-Louis
September 7, 2009 - 00:17

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I’ve had my new Palm Pre for about a week now and although I appreciate a lot of the features, the French options are very poor and badly implemented.  Because Palm is selling the Palm Pre in Canada, they have to make the interface and their entire phone totally French to adhere to Canadian regulations. But Palm, like many other companies often uses poor French in its products. It’s as if they hired some guy who took French and high school and trusted him with overseeing the translation of the Palm Pre for French-speaking Canadians. The problem with that approach is that while I’m a Francophone and I am completely bilingual, even I know better than start playing translator. So imagine someone whose command of French is not as good as mine, trying to translate a major and complex product.

When first starting the Canadian Palm Pre, it quickly asks you what language you want to use. From then on the entire interface operates in French, some kind of French, although that excludes most app which are available for the Palm Pre.

There are several usability issues that have been overlooked by both Palm and Bell Canada which has a history of selling products to Francophones and should have known better. For example, by default, the clock does not display 24 hour time. It displays AM and PM time instead. Well, any French speaker will tell you that although AM and PM time are tolerated in French slang, in French the time is officially recorded using the 24 hour clock just like the American military. The option to switch the time to a 24 hour clock was available, but it should have been the default.

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Some words are translated using the direct English counterpart although a better word is used and suggested in French. For example, in the Palm Pre’s Info menu, the word battery is translated as “batterie” instead of the right word which is “pile électrique.” Although batterie is used in slang, it is not the right word. Batterie in French refers to a set of drums (in music), a kitchen cooking set or is used in military circles as a term for an artillery ensemble. In the context used in the Palm Pre, the word batterie is an Anglicism.

Third party applications that are translated suffer from even worse French than the Palm Pre’s interface. The biggest culprit is Tweed, the Twitter application made by California-based Pivotal  Labs. The French used in that application is so poor it is unusable. It’s the equivalent of Engrish, the English approximation spoken in Asia. Just like Engrish, Pivotal Labs’ French sounds French but is more laughable and baffling instead of useful. The menu includes new words I have never come across in the French language such as “Topiques Tendantes,” “Favorites,” and “charger de plus.”

Topiques Tendantes is used as a translation for Trending Topics. Topiques is more often used as synonym of medication in French, although one of its form is the equivalent of the word “topic.” However, the right word in the context is “sujet.” Tendante is a new word made up by Pivotal Lab that looks French. When combining the two words together, topiques tendantes makes no sense for a French user. It’s not forbidden to create new words in French, but these new words have to follow some kind of structure so they can be mixed with the existing language without confusing people.

Favorites here is conjugated with the wrong gender. Yes, in French, every word, like the sun or a table has a gender. A tweet, because most English nouns translated to French are masculine nouns is a masculine. Therefore, the tweets which is someone’s favourite should be a “favoris.” The word message which could also be referred to is also masculine in French.

Charger de plus is badly conjugated. You can’t charge “de plus” in French. What Pivotal Labs means here is charge more. But in French, you can’t charge more because the very act of charging adds more. It’s like saying “go down to the floor below.” If you go down, you’re already going below.  The word charger is also the wrong word to capture the meaning of “more.” Ajouter (add) or “plus” are more appropriate. You can’t even use charger next to the preposition “de.” Such a preposition cannot be used after a verb.

There’s more problems in Tweed like “Chargeant de Twitter” which I won’t even dissect because I could write a 2000 essay on that weird term alone. But one thing which shows the how Pivotal Labs translates French is the way they capitalize all French words in the menu. French is unlike English. Only the first word in a title or a button is capitalized. So a term like Topiques Tendantes should be written as Topiques tendantes. Chargeant de Twitter is an exception as Twitter is itself a proper noun and therefore keeps its capital. It feels to me that someone at Pivotal Labs spent too much time using the poor Google Language Tools application instead of hiring a real translator.* A lot of people think Google Language Tools is good or even useful. As someone versed in English, French and German, I say don’t trust it and don’t use it. It’s worse than trusting Wikipedia as a reliable source.

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My main peeve about the French usage in the Palm Pre is how it forces me to use French Web services such as Wikipedia’s or Google without asking me or allowing me to switch easily. For example, I wanted to look up X-Men Utopia in Wikipedia. Well the French version of Wikipedia had nothing on that topic, and there was no way for me to easily switch to the English localized version of Wikipedia made for mobile browsers like the iPhone and the Palm Pre without exiting the mobile mode. Even when exiting the French mobile mode, then switching to the regular English Wikipedia version, many times, my searches would still try to pull results from the French mobile Wikipedia. This is a problem that is not just Palm’s fault. It is a problem that plagues a lot of French users who use sites like Wikipeadia and Google on their mobile phones in French. There’s no way to search in another language easily.

The one thing my Palm Pre does, is try to auto correct my French. So if I text a message to an English speaking friend and type this sentence “The bird flying over the tree is blue.” The Palm Pre will correct the sentence to “Thé bird flying over thé tree is blue.” Even if I go back and replace the é, it will put it back. I haven’t found any options to disable auto correction for French in my Palm Pre yet.

The problems plaguing French users of the Palm Pre are also problems for users of devices made by other manufacturers. The iPhone has similar problems.I am unsatisfied with many French translation found in Apple products. Adobe uses dubious French in its products too. Microsoft, which is one of the more careful companies about localized contents, also makes mistakes from time to time too. For those companies the Frengrish that they serve their users is harmless. But for users, it shows that although you paid the same entry price as an English speaker for a product, that you are treated as a second class customer that doesn’t deserve the same care and product quality as English users.

*Editor's notes: We initially wrote that Pivotal Labs had used Google Language Tools to translate their interface. They haven't. We apologize for the mistake. The good news is that Pivotal Labs is taking our criticisms very seriously and will definitely make change to the French localization of Tweed in the future.


Last Updated: September 6, 2021 - 08:15

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