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I did some experiments with Google Translate to translate three sets of sentences, in order to try to understand how to translate certain sentences that involve prepositions as well as object pronouns. I don't understand the results.

I run towards the forest.
Je cours vers la forêt.
There is the forest. I run through it.
Il y a la forêt. Je cours vers lui.

I am surprised by "lui".

I had thought that "the forest", when being replaced by the object pronoun "it" in English, would also in French be replaced by a direct object pronoun (namely, "la"). (I figured that "la forêt" is a direct object pronoun, because I've learned that indirect object pronouns in French happen when the noun that the pronoun is replacing is preceded with à or de, (as in Je pense de toi). "the forest" has no à or de before it, so I figured it must be a direct object).

Even if it is an indirect object pronoun, I was taught that indirect object pronouns go before the verb. So why is the sentence not:

Il y a la forêt. Je lui cours vers.

?

I run in the forest.
Je cours dans la forêt.
There is the forest. I run in it.
Il y a la forêt. Je cours dedans.

WordReference says that "dedans" is an adverb that means "inside". In French, can you not actually say "I run in it", and that you can only say, "I run inside"?

Electricity runs through my computer.
L'électricité passe par mon ordinateur.
There is my computer. Electricity runs through it.
Il y a mon ordinateur. L'électricité le traverse.

What happened to the preposition "par", when the pronoun "le" replaces "mon ordinateur"?


In all three sets of sentences, I was expecting to simply replace a noun with a direct object pronoun. But many, many different questions came up:

  1. Why was "la forêt" replaced with "lui" (an indirect object pronoun), instead of "la" (a direct object pronoun), when I see no "à" or "de" before "la forêt"?
  2. Why was "lui" not placed just before the verb, like how we're taught is the proper placement for object pronouns?
  3. Why was "dedans" used, instead of some kind of object pronoun? Is it actually impossible to translate "I ran in it" using an object pronoun?
  4. In English, "Electricity runs through it" keeps the preposition, but in French, it seems that using an object pronoun removes the preposition "vers". How do I know when to remove the preposition (as in "L'électricité le traverse") versus when to keep it (as in "Je cours ver lui.") ?
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    Believe me, between phrasal verbs and French, Google does not cut it. You can't learn French using Google translate. Ergo, I won't bother wasting my time and yours trying that exercise. Google can't handle: I run through it. It has translated: I run towards it. Je traverse la forêt en courant.-I run through the forest. Courir vers something is to run towards something. – Lambie Dec 27 '17 at 1:55
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    There is a very old and used phrase to explain one aspect of translation: "I swim across the river in French" is not: je nage à travers le fleuve. It's: Je traverse le fleuve à la nage*. Sometimes, the simplest things are simply expressed differently in the other language. For the computer, run through is also traverser, not passer in your sentence: Le courant traverse mon ordinateur. Correct translation of a somewhat odd sentence...:) – Lambie Dec 27 '17 at 1:59
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    @Lambie : The trouble is, there is no other resource that is beginner friendly, other than Google Translate, if I have a sentence that I don't know how to translate. I mean, I have learned things from using GT; sometimes it gives me ideas for me to google, and sometimes it clarifies questions which I can then ask. Without using Google Translate to learn French, I would have no other "translation service" to get me started on learning sentences that I have no idea on how to begin to translate! – silph Dec 27 '17 at 2:05
  • That is incorrect. There are tons and tons of resources. You might have to pay something. But before you venture into translation, you need to immerse yourself in French. One only starts translating a language, after actually learning it. There are translation methods for learning languages, but they are not recommended. I don't understand why y our comment was upvoted. Why are translating into a language you don't even know?? – Lambie Dec 27 '17 at 2:09
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    @Lambie I am feeling frusterated by your remarks, although I have to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you don't mean to make me feel shut down. "Why are you translating into a language you dont' even know??" you say. Because that's how I am trying to learn. I can only do so much with the grammar I have available to me online. Not everyone has the money or time to take classes in a school. So of one aspect of trying to learn French is to try to speak and write in French, and when I hit something I feel like I should be able to say based on the grammar I know, – silph Dec 27 '17 at 5:53
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  1. Why was "la forêt" replaced with "lui" (an indirect object pronoun), instead of "la" (a direct object pronoun), when I see no "à" or "de" before "la forêt"?

Google translate is wrong here. "Je cours vers la forêt" when replacing the noun with a pronoun should be "Je cours vers elle". GT just did not get that the "it" in your second sentence was refering to "the forest" from the previous one.

But "Je cours vers la forêt" is not even the proper translation for "I run through it" ("courir vers" is to run towards, not through). Good translations for "to run through" would be:

  • "courir à travers" (almost literal translation)
  • "traverser" (simpler, but looses the notion of running)

With the first translation, you get "Je cours à travers elle" But it really sounds weird, specially right after "Il y a la forêt". I see two options:

  • merging the two sentences into one: "Je cours à travers la forêt"
  • just dropping the pronoun, making the object implicit: "Il y a la forêt; Je cours à travers.". I used a semicolon to make the link between the two sentences more obvious.

The second option can be a bit surprising, but it is a thing. I don't know the exact rule for when you can drop objects, I just use my feeling as a native to decide.

Otherwise you have the "traverser" option, much silmpler with a pronoun: "Il y a la forêt. Je la traverse": clean, simple, no surprises.

  1. Why was "lui" not placed just before the verb, like how we're taught is the proper placement for object pronouns?

Because of the "vers". This is the notion of "complément d'objet direct" (COD) versus "complément d'objet indirect" (COI). I let you check out the rules linked to COD/COI but here are e few examples:

  • "Je traverse la forêt" -> "Je la traverse"
  • "Je cours vers la maison" -> "Je cours vers elle"
  • "Je parle à mon ami" -> "Je lui parle"
  1. Why was "dedans" used, instead of some kind of object pronoun? Is it actually impossible to translate "I ran in it" using an object pronoun?

With "dedans" the object is always implicit, as I did with "à travers" where it is optional. You can see "dedans" as a shorthand for "dans [implicit object]", here "dans la forêt".

  1. In English, "Electricity runs through it" keeps the preposition, but in French, it seems that using an object pronoun removes the preposition "vers". How do I know when to remove the preposition (as in "L'électricité le traverse") versus when to keep it (as in "Je cours ver lui.") ?

The translation of "to run through" is a phrasal verb that can be translated into "traverser", a "normal" verb, or "passer à travers", a somewat composite verb.

The translation of "to run towards" is "courir vers" which is a verb with a pronoun ("verbe pronominal", kind of the French version of a phrasal verb).

So I guess the answer to your question is: you look up the translations, and if the translation you use has a pronoun, you will have a pronoun.

  • This response clarifies so much for me that I did not get from grammar websites and would not have understood by using dictionaries and linguee.fr . Thanks for detecting the areas I was confused in, even if it was through the use of poor Google Translate translations to arrive at those questions! Your response will be very useful for me to study the next few days. – silph Dec 27 '17 at 12:57
  • You said that "to run towards" is "courir vers", and that this is a "verb pronominal". But I learned that pronomial verbs in French always have a "se" in them. Is it really true that "courir vers" has no "se"? If so, where is the pronoun? – silph Dec 27 '17 at 14:57
  • @silph For me with "se" it is a special case of verbe pronominal called verbe reflexif where the pronoun changes with the subject. To confirm, though. – Cédric Van Rompay Dec 28 '17 at 20:20
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Some decades ago, automatic translation was only good to make fun of the results and was being bashed.

In the recent years, it has made dramatic progress and has now reached a point where it can be helpful to understand what a foreign language text is about, and it is able to build sentences that are generally understandable and even sometimes accurate.

However, the software behind automatic translation is still far to be able to grasp all the subtleties required to fully understand a written text and to write a text that respect the target language grammar and semantics.

You might then successfully use GT to convert a text written in a foreign language you do not know well (or at all) to English, and you'll be likely able to fix the inconsistencies and understand most of it.

The opposite, converting an English text to a language you do not fully master, will often produce text that a native target language speaker will need to interpret further to understand what was meant. That means you should never take the translated text as proper target language sentences. That's not yet achieved outside for simple sentences and if you are lucky. That's the case with Je cours dans/vers la forêt but there are issues with all the remaining sentences.

  1. Why was "la forêt" replaced with "lui" (an indirect object pronoun), instead of "la" (a direct object pronoun), when I see no "à" or "de" before "la forêt"?

Because GT didn't "understand" that "it" refers to the forest. The correct pronoun should have been elle but another issue is "through" is also missed by GT. "There is the forest" is also probably mistranslated.

Voilà la forêt. Je cours vers elle. (towards)

Voilà la forêt. J'y fait du jogging. (through)

  1. Why was "lui" not placed just before the verb, like how we're taught is the proper placement for object pronouns?

Je lui cours vers is not French, vers needs to be followed by something, just like I believe "towards" cannot end a sentence. You might have written:

J'y cours.

Note that j'y cours means either I run to the forest or I run in the forest. This is the kind of ambiguity machine translation will have more trouble to sort out than human translation. People are much more likely to understand what is meant by looking to the context.

  1. Why was "dedans" used, instead of some kind of object pronoun? Is it actually impossible to translate "I ran in it" using an object pronoun?

Je cours dedans is not idiomatic.

  1. In English, "Electricity runs through it" keeps the preposition, but in French, it seems that using an object pronoun removes the preposition "vers". How do I know when to remove the preposition (as in "L'électricité le traverse") versus when to keep it (as in "Je cours ver lui.") ?

The sentences are odd. Here are idiomatic sentences:

Voici mon ordinateur.

L'électricité alimente mon ordinateur.

Du courant électrique circule dans mon ordinateur.


If I understand you correctly, then if I have sentences that I want to learn to say in French (ie because there are grammatical structures that I wan tot learn to use), then using Google Translate to do research/investigation to answer my own question is a bad idea?

No, I won't say it is necessarily a bad idea. Machine translation has even been successfully used at school by "learning from errors". You should just take MT with a (big) grain of salt anything suggested by GT and that shouldn't be your unique learning source. I would also recommend to search words and sentences used in context with using linguee and just plain dictionaries.

It will never "grasp" these subtleties, any more than it grasps even the sentences it can adequately translate now. As you know, GT is designed to be blind to what it's doing, to be simply a complex, statistically informed lookup service between equivalents with some regard for context. I can't recommend it any more than a bad dictionary even at this point in its development. A fluent speaker can fill in the gaps. A learner is more likely to be misled.

Yes, a fluent speaker will fill in the gaps, that's the reason why GT is more useful when used in the foreign language to native language direction than the other way around. About "grasping", of course computers have no real mind to be able to grasp anything, but moving from a phrase book, then to a statistical model and finally to a neural one are steps that have hugely reduced the lack of quality of what machine translation is able to produce.

  • If I understand you correctly, then if I have sentences that I want to learn to say in French (ie because there are grammatical structures that I wan tot learn to use), then using Google Translate to do research/investigation to answer my own question is a bad idea? But then, I don't know how else to find out the answers to the questions. Should I have just asked for translations directly, on this site, along with an explanation of what grammar knowledge I am missing? – silph Dec 27 '17 at 6:03
  • "The software behind automatic translation is still far to be able to grasp all the subtleties required to fully understand a written text..." It will never "grasp" these subtleties, any more than it grasps even the sentences it can adequately translate now. As you know, GT is designed to be blind to what it's doing, to be simply a complex, statistically informed lookup service between equivalents with some regard for context. I can't recommend it any more than a bad dictionary even at this point in its development. A fluent speaker can fill in the gaps. A learner is more likely to be misled. – Luke Sawczak Dec 27 '17 at 6:22
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    @LukeSawczak: I may choose to close this question, and re-open another question that does not mention Google Translate. hopefully then, my original grammatical question will be more clear, and I'll be able to get an answer to it. – silph Dec 27 '17 at 6:37
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    J'y cours means either "I run in it" or "I run towards it". As Cédric wrote, I run though it is better translated by je traverse la forêt (en courant). Using elle is theoretically possible but not very idiomatic in à travers elle and vers elle unless perhaps in a poem or something. OTOH, je cours dans elle doesn't work and is never used. – jlliagre Dec 27 '17 at 16:19
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    The reason why dans elle or dans lui are unused is because these combinations are only used for persons or for personified things which the forest isn't. Dedans or y can be used for things. J'y cours is idiomatic. Out of context, it is slightly ambiguous and doesn't completely match "I run through it". That might be j'y cours de long en large (the length and breadth.) – jlliagre Dec 27 '17 at 20:29
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  1. In English, "Electricity runs through it" keeps the preposition, but in French, it seems that using an object pronoun removes the preposition "vers". How do I know when to remove the preposition (as in "L'électricité le traverse") versus when to keep it (as in "Je cours ver lui.") ?

Part of the problem you're running into here is a fundamental difference in the way French and English encode directional information and method of movement.

English verbs typically indicate the way you move (to run, to crawl, to tiptoe) and the direction of the movement is indicated by an adverb or prepositional phrase (to run down/up the stairs, to crawl through/along the lawn, to tiptoe into/out of the room).

French does the exact opposite: the verb will indicate the direction of the movement, while the manner will be left to an adjunct, or forgotten about entirely as irrelevant:

To run down the stairs: descendre les escaliers (en courant)

To run down the stairs: monter les escaliers (en courant)

To crawl throughthe lawn: traverser la pelouse (en rampant)

To crawl along the lawn: longer la pelouse (en rampant)

To tiptoe into the room: Rentrer dans la pièce (sur la pointe des pieds)

To tiptoe out of the room: Sortir de la pièce (sur la pointe des pieds)

Of course both languages can form untypical sentences: "Le serpent rampe à travers la pelouse" is grammatical, but it's about as idiomatic as "The snake crosses the lawn crawling".

Another related difficulty is that the basic French locative prepositions tend to be underspecified compared to English's because the verbs is generally enough to disambiguate. (For example de will often translate from, off and out of).

  • This helps to explain what Lambie said earlier in a comment! "I swim across the river in French" is not: je nage à travers le fleuve. It's: Je traverse le fleuve à la nage. It was also helpful to understand how "de" can often translate many different English prepositions, because the verb carries much of that information. This is a very helpful response to me, as a French Language Learner. – silph Dec 27 '17 at 14:40

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