Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Mourir to Mourez - How a New York Times Op-Ed Was Edited Overnight

On March 14, 2010, the Twitterverse went nuts over a New York Times Op-Ed piece titled, "It's My Party and You Have to Answer," by Rand Richards Cooper. Links to the article were tweeted and retweeted ad nauseum. The article must have struck a chord with people as it seemed everybody was talking about it.

In the article, Cooper bemoans the fact that people, including some of his friends, have failed to RSVP to his E-vites, thereby causing the host unnecessary inconvenience and anxiety. This, he opines, clearly shows not only "how hard the R.S.V.P. rubs against the grain of contemporary life," but also that in requesting commitment from people, "you are demanding a kind of navigation that Americans increasingly do not practice."

While the point of the article was taken and appreciated, my focus here has nothing to do with etiquette. Cooper suggests in the article that the standard R.S.V.P, which stands for "Répondez s'il vous plaît" ("Please respond") in French, is no longer effective. He proposes R.V.O.M as a more suitable and potentially more effective replacement. R.V.O.M., according to the article as it appeared online (and perhaps in the hard copy as well, though I can't verify) on March 14, 2010, stands for "Répondez Vite -- Ou Mourir!"

"For those friends of mine who plead a lack of high school French, allow me to translate. Respond Quickly, or Die!" says Cooper. Immediately, my mind went to the post I had recently written about how to use free online translators without making it so obvious that you do.

You see, 'répondez vite — ou mourir' is grammatically-incorrect French. The first verb, 'répondez,' is correctly in the 2nd person, plural/formal, imperative form. The second verb, 'mourir,' is supposed to be conjugated in the exact same manner. Unfortunately, it wasn't, and the infinitive, 'mourir,' appeared in the article. Instead of getting "respond quickly or die" as he intended, Cooper inadvertently wrote, while his friends "who plead a lack of high school French" looked on, "respond quickly or to die."

To say that it's an embarrassing mistake is a bit of an understatement, especially when you take into consideration that the article appeared in the newspaper of record and that the author clearly wanted to show his clever side.

This morning (March 16, 2010), as I was rereading the article online, I discovered, to my amusement, that the mistake was mysteriously corrected. What used to be "mourir" now reads "mourez," as it should have been all along. Somebody must have alerted the author's attention to such an obvious blooper -- the kind any high school French student could spot easily.

Even though the original text no longer exists and I have no proof that the mistake was really there at one point, luckily the phenomenon which happened to lost ancient texts is at work here. The original incorrect version of Cooper's French has been preserved in the form of a tweet here, a tweet there, a retweet here, a retweet there, a quote here, and a quote there. I'm not making this up, you see?

How could someone who knows enough to come up with 'répondez' have unwittingly written 'mourir' instead of 'mourez'? Call me crazy, but I have a hard time believing that it was simply a typographical error. Besides, I'm sure that article was read and proofread tons of times before it went to print. It seems deliberate. In other words, the mistake did not appear to be due to an oversight, but -- not to be harsh -- a lack of high school French -- precisely what the author says his friends plead.

The textual critic in me suspects the use of an online translator. The test on Babel Fish didn't confirm my theory as Babel Fish is smart enough to create the parallelism between the two imperatives and spits out "mourez" instead of "mourir."

The gotcha moment came when I entered the same text into Google Translate. When given the English, "respond quickly or die," Google Translate gives you, "répondre rapidement ou mourir" -- two infinitives. Google Translate does not recognize that "respond" and "die" in this context are used as imperatives and, therefore, treats both words as infinitives. The expression R.S.V.P is formulaic enough for anyone to know that the Google Translate result needs to be slightly altered from "répondre" to "répondez." The 2nd person, plural/formal, imperative form of "mourir" which is "mourez," on the other hand, isn't so common. (How many times do people say, "You/Y'all, die!"?)

The failure to see 'mourir' as wrong, to me, shows the inability to verify results derived from an online translator. I could be wrong, but I think I have a pretty good case here.

(Added March 17, 2010)

Well, what do you know? Words got out and Mr. Rand Richards Cooper, the author of the op-ed piece in the New York Times, wrote me an email message today (March 17, 2010) telling me that my online translator theory was not based on truth. Mr. Cooper's message was, as you will see, gracious and even a bit self-deprecating. What can I say? Rand Richards Cooper comes across as humble and very likable.

Printed with permission:

"Hi Leela:

I’m the guy who wrote the op-ed piece on RSVPing in the New York Times… Your nice theory notwithstanding, there was no online translation machine involved – just my own faulty, three-decades-old high school French, which (alas) used to be serviceable, and would not have committed that gaffe twenty years ago. But as the saying goes, tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse… (Or at least that’s how I remember it.)

Rand Richards Cooper"

To which I replied:

"Hello Mr. Cooper,

Thank you so very much for taking the time to write me. The gracious tone of your email made me regret my being presumptuous regarding my theory on how the gaffe came to be. Please do pardon an overzealous linguist.

Can I please have your permission to reprint the content of your email as an addendum to my post? That way, the five people who read that blog will have a more balanced view of the story.


P.S. I always RSVP. :)"

"Mais bien sûr!" was what he said. And all of us live happily ever after.