What is the exact sense of "on voyait s'élever" in the text below?

Depuis quelques années déjà les amis de M. Ader avaient vent d'une machine à voler que le savant électricien devait un jour ou l'autre lancer dans l'espace. Dans la Haute-Garonne, dans le parc d'un château des environs de Paris, on voyait s'élever un oiseau gigantesque, sorte de chauve-souris bleuâtre, qui planait à une quinzaine de mètres du sol. Les heureux spectateurs de ce phénomène cherchaient ensuite à prendre des renseignements sur cette singulière machine; on leur répondait que c'était le « pigeon » de M. Ader et rien de plus.

Source: 1891-07-23, "L'Oiseau de M. Ader", La Science Illustrée, Paris, pp. 129-130

"on voyait s'élever" = "it was seen rising repeatedly during an unspecified interval of time in the past"? Is this interpretation correct?

Also, does "c'était le « pigeon » de M. Ader et rien de plus." have a hidden meaning or no?


The English equivalent of "On voyait s'élever" could be "one could see rising...". "On leur répondait" is simply "We would tell them that..." or "We would respond with...".

As for "c'était le « pigeon » de M. Ader", as far as I know, Clément Ader was said to be fascinated by birds [<< Le vol des oiseaux et des insectes m'a toujours préoccupé >> - Clément Ader. ] This could thus be a reference to that - Ader built his flying machines based on research on the flight of birds (often "bat-like", as the passage states).

Hope this helps.

  • Is "On voyait s'élever" = "one could see rising" seen as an action that happened repeatedly in the past (relative to July, 1891) or as a singular event that happened a single time and never repeated up to the day the article was written (July, 1891)? – Energizer777 Apr 6 '16 at 9:30
  • @Energizer777: I am not sure if I can give you a convincing answer. According to the passage, Ader's friends had had, for some years already, "knowledge" of a machine which could (and sooner or later, would) fly. The usage of the imparfait seems to suggest that the event (the machine rising into the air) was habitual - the "since when" is not clearly defined. Hope this helps. – Anupama G Apr 6 '16 at 11:33
  • On is not one in 95% of cases: one is very rarely used in English. And répondre is not respond or tell. The answer they were given...for example – Lambie Apr 9 '16 at 14:53

You get the point quite well, I may rephrase your translation to make it a bit more accurate : "On voyait s'élever" stands for "It was seen rising sometimes during the few past years (mentioned at the start of the text)" .

As for "c'était le « pigeon » de M. Ader et rien de plus" , the direct hidden meaning is that people there didn't care about what it was and didn't want to further investigate. Of course, the object was not a pigeon, that's for the guillemets.

  • No, this is not it was seen rising sometimes...that is completely non-idiomatic. Sorry... – Lambie Apr 9 '16 at 14:52

Sometimes in English, one shifts to another tense for descriptions of ongoing things where imperfect is used in French. Imperfect can be rendered in a number of ways. The idea is to get the overall description of actions in terms of tenses to make sense in English. Also, the word ENSUITE, sounds like they looked for info after it had flown by....that placement of ensuite is the reason for my moving the idea of peculiar sight (phénomène) to the beginning of the sentence.

Passive and imperfect in French:

In the Haute Garonne, in chateau gardens on the outskirts of Paris, a gigantic bird, a sort of bluish bat gliding some fifteen meters above the ground, had been seen rising into the sky. After seeing this peculiar sight, the lucky onlookers then tried to get information on the singular machine. They were told that it was nothing more than Monsieur Ader's "pidgin" flying around.

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