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I came across this sentence in a French short story:

Les fusils-mitrailleurs n'avaient presque pas cessé de crépiter depuis le matin, et il s'y mêlait aussi des coups de fusil isolés.

I am wondering how the second part of the sentence, beginning 'il ...', works grammatically. Is it an impersonal construction? How would you translate it literally? (It has been translated as 'The machine guns had hardly stopped their chatter since morning, and with it were mingled single rifle shots'.)

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  • Literal translation is not a good way to go, most of the time. I would do this dummy it like this: [with] interspersed by rifle shots. mingle does not work here at all. People mingle, shots do not.
    – Lambie
    Dec 16, 2021 at 17:57
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    @Lambie Half of Merriam-Webster's online example sentences for 'mingle' (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mingle) use non-human subjects, and the Cambridge Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org/us/example/english/mingle) includes a couple examples of sounds mingling, so I think your criticism of "mingled" in the cited translation is not well-founded. In any event, the thrust of the question seems to be about the construction with 'il s'y mêlait" rather than an appropriate equivalent for mêler, no?
    – user17149
    Dec 16, 2021 at 19:41
  • @user17149 I doubt you will find many rifle shots mingling with other types of shooting. Mixed in with, yes. se meler also mean to be mixed in with. Sure, it was about the dummy it, but so what? My main point was about literal translation. If something mingles with something, the some thing or person are objects. The mingling is "touchable" so to speak. See the Cambridge Dict. examples.
    – Lambie
    Dec 16, 2021 at 19:45
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    @Lambie it's not "mingled rifle shots" it's "with it were mingled single rifle shots". By the way, it's not the OP's translation since they've written: "It has been translated as..." which most probably means they've taken it from a book or the like. (I don't like the sound of this sentence in English, but not because of the use of the word "mingle" which is not better or worse than mêler, but this remark is entirely out place to discuss this on FL)
    – None
    Dec 16, 2021 at 19:57
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    "The different sections of the composition start with a confused situation in which different sonorous objects, classified in accordance with the elements of nature, are mingled"--sounds are touchable? Voices have been known to mingle, too... Here too it's sounds: the ceaseless crackling of the machine guns, "and mixed in it, too, the reports of individual rifles." Surely someone on a site for French language is more interested in a close-to-the-source literal translation (elucidating the points of the source language) rather than elegant prose?
    – user17149
    Dec 16, 2021 at 20:02

3 Answers 3

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Il s('y) mêlait... is an impersonal pronominal form equivalent to a passive construction. And, indeed, it is often translated into English with a passive form as in the translation you give1.

This construction can be found with lots of verbs. It is often equivalent to a sentence using on:

Il se dit beaucoup de choses sur la vaccination actuellement...

means the same as: on dit beaucoup de choses sur la vaccination actuellement...2

Son dernier livre se vend très bien3.


1 Although in this very case I expect the passive is not the only way round. This is not the place to discuss translations into English, or to say whether an English sentence is correct or not, so I'm only suggesting that "single rifle shots mingled to them" could do.
2 And both, il se dit... and on dit... would translate in English as "a lot is being said about...".
3 In this case on would not be used unless the sentence was uttered by the bookseller or the publisher. In English the passive would not be used since "sell" here is the equivalent of "to be bought": "his last book sells very well".

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Good answers already by λyoye d'oncques and None, but I thought some extra pedantry might be helpful. That said, I don't think you should focus on the correct translation, but rather on capturing the correct image or sense of what the author is saying. We'll use a bit of literalist half-translation to try to clarify that, but an actual translation (for someone who hasn't read the passage in the original) is secondary.

Les fusils-mitrailleurs n'avaient presque pas cessé de crépiter depuis le matin, et il s'y mêlait aussi des coups de fusil isolés.

First let's understand what's literally happening in the sentence, to understand what is being said rather than worrying about the words--again, elegant translation isn't the goal; the goal is to understand French.

The first part is pretty straightforward; "The machine-guns had almost not ceased to crackle since the morning"--the image is the continuous production of discrete, sharp, fairly high-pitched noises. I can't find the source context, but I'm getting a WWI trench-type situation (though without the deep explosions of heavy artillery), or somebody being under siege.

Then we get the second part:

et il s'y mêlait aussi des coups de fusil isolés.

Here there's some grammar with no exact English correspondences.

First, a minor point: des coups de fusil isolés--it's tempting for an English speaker to associate isolés with fusil because we like to put our adjectives close to their referents. But French grammar helps you out here: isolés and fusil do not agree in number. So isolés is modifying coups de fusil, not the guns themselves. Noting the military context, the fusils are likely "rifles" rather than "guns" generically. Also "isolated" would probably be a false friend here, especially since it's describing the sound, not the rifles or the people using them; so let's call this "distinct rifle reports"--sense 5 for the last one.

Now we get to the meat of your question, et il s'y mêlait aussi.

  • y is a single-word pronoun for a prepositional phrase. It's always à + NOUN (or au + NOUN, as appropriate). There isn't really a good single-word equivalent for this in contemporary English; one can use "thereto" I suppose... Also note, French à doesn't always map perfectly to exactly one preposition: the English equivalent could be "at" (à ce moment-là), "to" (à la plage), or even just a possessive s (c'est à elle "it's hers" or "it belongs to her"). But that's for English speakers or literary translators to worry about; you just need to associate à with "towardness" or "entering" (as opposed to de which is "awayness" or "coming from").

  • se mêler: both the definition and, even better, the examples, show that mêler is a transitive verb meaning roughly "to mix". (Let's not fuss over the exact equivalent; even between very closely related languages, the clusters of meaning may not correspond exactly.) French transitive verbs tend to be more insistent about having an explicit direct object than English verbs are. So while in English you'd say "the colors mix"--and we understand implicitly that they are also receiving the action of mixing, they aren't stirring pancake batter--in French it's les couleurs se mêlent, they "mix themselves," so the direct object is still explicit. The same source also says that se mêler à uses à to show what's being mixed into.

  • il serves the same function here as in il y a or il pleut: it's a dummy noun. Here it's occupying the subject spot of the sentence, and will be clarified later on, just as in some dialects of spoken English one might say "It hurts, your shoulder?" The il would not appear in standard English translations of the source sentence.

So overall this is chunk is "and thereto admixed also the distinct reports of rifles"--which is terrible English, at best rather archaic, so let's stick with the French: il s'y mêlait aussi des coups de fusil isolés = des coups de fusil isolés s'y mêlait aussi = des coups de fusil isolés se mêlait aussi [à qqch], with the qqch in question being the continuous noise of the machine guns. Which is not a word that's ever explicitly stated: it's just clear from context, and a nice thing about having a pronoun for an entire prepositional phrase is that you don't have to spell it out. Stressing the image again: there is a fairly continuous or constant noise of regular machine-gun fire, but mixed in with it the listener can also hear the distinct, probably less rhythmic/regular, sounds of other guns firing, which makes them stand out individually.

Question: if il s'y mêlait aussi des coups de fusil isolés is semantically equivalent to des coups de fusil isolés s'y mêlait aussi, why the il? Answer: emphasis. I am not a native speaker, but my understanding of this sentence is that putting des coups de fusil isolés at the end of the sentence places it in a more prominent or more emphasized position; it gives it more attention. French prosody--with phrase-final word stress, rather than fixed word stress like we have in English--would also support this. (One could even make a literary-critical argument that this emphasis makes the words stand out, just like the individual rifle-shots being described--but that's maybe a little cute.)

So to be as literal as possible, I suppose "The machine guns had barely ceased crackling since the morning, and therein mixed also the distinct reports of rifles." For literary translation, anything that captures this image will work; that's between you and your conscience (or maybe your editor). Depending on mood and audience, I would go with anything from "The machine guns had hardly ceased crackling since the morning, and into the din was mixed as well the discrete reports of rifles" to "The machine guns had barely stopped firing all morning, and the sporadic sounds of rifle fire seeped in with their crackle" to "The crackle of the machine guns, ceaseless since the morning, was punctuated irregularly by distinct rifle-pops" but that's secondary; what matters is the image, and understanding the French.

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    Thereto! Finally a reason for using that, to explain French! Maybe even thereinto? Really insightful material. Dec 17, 2021 at 17:01
  • Thank you for a wonderfully ample grammatical commentary. And you are absolutely right about the setting: it's World War One enemy lines
    – Tom Adair
    Dec 18, 2021 at 8:32
  • Well-directed answer, directed towards understanding the French rather than finding the best translation into English
    – justerman
    Jan 20, 2022 at 17:50
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The missing piece to your puzzle is that in the construction explained in the selected answer, you have the pronoun y, which stands for the sound expressed by the verb in the first part (crépité: crépitement), so it's similar to something like to it was mixed/mingled. Consider for comparison the following sentence which still uses the construction but does away with the pronoun:

Le bruit de coups de fusil isolés se mêlait au crépitement des fusils-mitrailleurs qui n'avait presque pas cessé depuis le matin.

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  • No need for to itself; English verbs are usually more flexible about dropping direct objects rather than requiring a reflexive pronoun for passive voice. Dormez bien :)
    – user17149
    Dec 16, 2021 at 19:51
  • @user17149 Thanks, I hear you, it's just without it the learner doesn't get the feel for the reflexive pronoun imho, doesn't have any way to see the difference between a sentence like OP's and the one I provided. I guess the latter uses the prep. with whereas OP's would wfw use to. I mean, that's the thing, the flexibility you talk about obfuscates in a way the interplay between the construction and the pronoun and I don't want to cross the line into weird phrasing for the sake of making a point with that. I can't make it carry over, it's no use. I guess comments will have to suffice! Dec 16, 2021 at 19:59
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    Sometimes word-for-word just can't happen; on n'y peut résoudre... I think calling out the discrepancy here--pointing out the ways that French isn't just English with the words switched--is the best you can do; good on you for doing it!
    – user17149
    Dec 16, 2021 at 20:57
  • @user17149 Yes, that's it, you can't just use words as mere labels, using itself would amount to some sort of masquerade in a way; more effort is required to enable the learner to think about these subtleties in the target language (French) is all. Cheers. Dec 16, 2021 at 21:02

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