News & Politics

An Article in French Signals Greater International Ambitions for the Washington Post

Photograph by Evy Mages

French speakers had an unusual opportunity on Wednesday to read a Washington Post article en français. West Africa bureau chief Danielle Paquette’s article about an elderly Senegalese man’s efforts to clear his father’s name ran in English and in French, with the headline “Une famille en quête de vérité et de justice – 76 ans après.”

I speak French better than I read or write it, but even to me a read of the translation revealed many signals about how nicely it was done. A quick set of examples: The sentence “People used to tell Senghor he looked just like his father: big, strong, yet gentle in the eyes — an imposing man who winked at babies” becomes “Les gens avaient l’habitude de dire à Biram Senghor qu’il était le portrait craché de son père : grand, costaud, mais avec un regard doux. Un homme imposant qui faisait des clins d’œil aux bébés.” Le portrait craché (the spitting image) is an idiom unlikely to emerge from a translation AI, as is the choice of the word costaud for “strong”—”beefy” would be a decent way to translate costaud in English, and it’s more visually evocative than the more likely to be reached for fort.

Elite Truong is the Post‘s deputy editor of strategic initiatives, a job that involves helping with the launch of new verticals like By the Way and Launcher, as well as helping to organize a dozen translations of the Post‘s popular explainer about how coronavirus spreads and Spanish translations of Geoffrey Fowler’s laptop-buying guide and Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung, and Ana Vanessa Herrero’s account of a plan to capture Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The Post‘s opinion operation, which works separately from the newsroom, has pursued readers in Spanish and Arabic for a while now, and while the Post has a Spanish language podcast and articles from the news side sometimes run in Spanish, French is rarely a priority for US news organizations. (There are more French speakers in North America than you might think, but the number is dwarfed by those who speak Spanish.) Paquette speaks French but wrote her article in English. The foreign desk pitched it as a good candidate for a translation that could reach readers in Senegal, France, and beyond. That idea is a good fit with the Post‘s ambitions to reach an ever-wider audience: “We went from regional to national and now international,” as Truong explains it.

“I get a lot of pitches for different contenders to translate,” Truong says. She thought this story, which stems from a shameful incident in 1944 when French forces turned guns on French West African soldiers in Dakar, may hold “a lot of global appeal” as the US’s reckoning over race this summer has resonated overseas. And, she says, it would allow “more qualitative metrics”–i.e., the numbers and other reactions that help inform the Post about whether there’s an audience worth pursuing. Jennifer Amur, an editor on the foreign desk, oversaw the translation, which was done by a freelance human being—”there’s so many metaphors and analogies and so many things that make up a deeply reported story that get lost in [AI] translation,” Truong says—and reviewed and polished by French-speaking photo editor Olivier Laurent. “We try to have as many touchpoints as we can,” Truong says.

There are no plans yet for regular translation of Post articles into French, or even Spanish. Right now those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, Truong says, while the news organization mulls the data it gleans from articles in languages other than English. The Post doesn’t share internal numbers, but she says, “I can tell you that, in the past, the reason why we did this is because we have seen encouraging metrics for our previous experiments in Spanish and in different languages.”

Just imagine: Someday French speakers could regularly lose their minds about Date Lab, too. Pourquoi les francophones devraient-ils s’occuper de ses oignons? 

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.