This week I spent time translating a document for a friend whose grandfather fought in World War I. The document, issued by the French government, recognizes members of a United States Marine Regiment that helped defeat the Germans near the end of the war. There’s only one paragraph to translate. A simple task, one would think. Yet it’s not something you can easily feed into a translation program and quickly receive an adequate result. In fact, most translations if done well rely heavily on the human brain’s ability to consider myriad factors that might affect interpretation—factors that programs like Google Translate currently have no way of determining.
In this post, I share some of the challenges and discoveries I made while translating the text. I’m hoping that the history buffs and native French speakers who read along will enrich the story further in the comments.
Readability of Source Text
Above is a photo of the certificate that was awarded to my friend’s grandfather. I had to read through it several times to determine all of the words. The initial challenge was simply identifying each character properly. The text of the original was handwritten so the letters aren’t perfectly consistent. Surprisingly, several words are missing accents, which if taken literally as written, can alter their interpretation.
So for starters, I wonder if there is a text recognition system out there that is capable of producing a spell-corrected version of the original French.
My French and English Interpretations
Below is a zoomed-in photo of the document’s text followed by my interpretation of the French alongside my English translation.
Citation à l’ordre de l’armée
Commendation at the Behest of the Military
Le 5e Régiments de Marine Américain :
(Sous les ordres du Colonel Logan Feland)
5th Regiment of the United States Marines:
(Under the command of Colonel Logan Feland)
“A pris une part glorieuse aux operations engagées par la 4e Armée en Champagne, en octobre 1918. Le 3 octobre 1918, a participé à l’attaque des positions allemandes fortement retranchées entre le Blanc-Mont et la ferme Médéah, et poussant de l’avant jusqu’au abords de St Étienne-à-Arnes, a réalisé une avance de 6 kilométres. A fait plusieurs milliers de prisonniers, capturé des canons, des mitrailleuses et un important materiel de guerre. Cette attaque combinée avec celle des Divisions Françaises a eu pour conséquence l’évacuation des deux rives de la Suippe et du Massif de Notre Dame des Champs.”
“Has taken glorious part in operations deployed by the 4th Army in Champagne, in October 1918. On October 3, 1918, participated in the attack of deeply entrenched German positions between Le Blanc Mont and the Médéah farm, and pushing forward to the outskirts of St Étienne-à-Arnes, achieved an advance of 6 kilometers. Took several thousand prisoners, captured cannons, machine guns and substantial military equipment. This attack combined with that of French Divisions resulted in the evacuation of both shores of the Suippe and of the Massif de Notre Dame des Champs.”
(Ordre no 14742 “D” ~ 21 Mars 1919)
(Order no 14742 “D” ~ March 21, 1919)
Au Grand Quartier Général
Commandant en chef les Armées de l’Est.
At Supreme Headquarters
Eastern Armies Commander-in-Chief
Perhaps the most glaring difference between the font used in the document and modern-day English is the letter “v” which has a descending tail. Thus, the word avant looks like ayant. In the context of the document, however, my brain almost subconsciously made the needed adjustment.
The letter that gave me the greatest difficulty is the “M” in front of the word Médéah. It doesn’t resemble any of the other “M”s in the document and to my eye, looks more like an “R” or perhaps a combination of two characters. Google searches for a farm with a similar name near St Étienne-à-Arnes, or Le Blanc Mont, or the Massif de Notre Dame des Champs, proved fruitless. Luckily, I could call upon my French friend Mijo, who quickly recognized the ornate symbol as an M.
An Infamous Signature
The document is signed by Maréchal Pétain. I wondered if this was the same national hero, who was adored by France after World War I, then went on to collaborate with the Nazis during World War II. After the second war, Pétain was tried for treason and narrowly escaped execution. Because of his age and prior service to France, he was shown leniency and sentenced to life imprisonment. A quick image search of the infamous leader’s signature online confirmed that this is the same Pétain who authorized the commendation.
Understanding the Setting
I suppose a professional translator who is paid by the word might stop at this point, collect a fee and move on. But, the exercise raised several questions in my mind that I wanted to track down. First and foremost, where exactly did this confrontation take place? On my initial reading of the text, I’d incorrectly assumed that the fighting was somewhere near Mont Blanc, France’s highest peak in the Alps which extends into portions of Switzerland and Italy.
Looking at a map, however, I realized that this was unlikely as most of the fighting in France during World War I took place in the north. Indeed, Le Blanc Mont (as stated in the document) is different than Mont Blanc. According to Google Maps, however, there are 6 Le Blanc Monts in France and most are in the north! The one I was looking for was located near the Médéah farm, but that no longer exists. There were other clues, however, and eventually, I came to believe that the Le Blanc Mont mentioned in the document had to be the one that was closest to the Suippe river and St Étienne-à-Arnes.
Below is a screenshot from Google Maps, showing the distance between Le Blanc Mont and St Étienne-à-Arnes. (Google Maps annoyingly removed the label of the SEAA endpoint.) My limited knowledge of WWI was enough to recall the Battle of the Marne and Battle of Ardennes. Here we see the boundary line between Ardennes and Marne (two departments of France) stretching across the very location under consideration.
History Comes to Life
In another view on Google Maps, I noticed an American WWI monument lying practically on top of the as-the-crow-flies trajectory from my screen capture. Zeroing in on the monument brought up the following photograph, taken last February. The monument commemorates “the achievements of the American units that served in combat with the French Fourth Army during the summer and fall of 1918.”
Visitors to this site and the surrounding area can still find many vestiges from a war that took place more than one hundred years ago: trenches, dugouts, gun emplacements, fortified bunkers, and vast cemeteries. Here are a few photos I found online.
An Introduction to More
Above are the highlights of what I uncovered. A dump of my browser history shows far more dead ends than fruitful pages. One of my searches turned up a touristic route in northern France that leads you across the gently rolling and now peaceful battlegrounds. However, if you’d prefer to remain in the comfort of your home, today’s technology offers up a host of resources for learning more about what an ancestor might have endured.
My research barely skims the surface of what lies behind the honorary paragraph that sent me looking for more. But, it gives my friend a better starting point for how to proceed than a paragraph digested by one of today’s auto-translators. Some people might argue that expert systems and machine-learning algorithms are quickly catching up to human-level functioning. For now, however, nothing comes close.
Perhaps you can enrich the story further by adding your own insights in the comments.