26 Jan 2015

Translate Piketty?

All Posts, Piketty 28 Comments

Do we have any fluent French speakers who can translate these two paragraphs, taken from an August 2014 Piketty column (HT2 Magness)?

La croissance perpétuelle de la population, le dynamisme de ses universités et de ses innovations ont pour l’instant préservé le pays de cette dérive. Mais cela ne suffit plus. Une première fois déjà, vers 1900-1920, la montée des inégalités avait suscité un vaste débat national – c’était l’époque du Gilded Age, de Rock-feller et de Gatsby le Magnifique. C’est ainsi que le pays s’est retrouvé à inventer dans l’entre-deux-guerres une fiscalité lourdement progressive sur les plus hauts revenus et les patrimoines hérités les plus importants, avec des taux marginaux supérieurs atteignant ou dépassant les 70%-80% pendant un demi-siècle.

Va-t-on assister dans les années et décennies à venir à une réaction similaire de la démocratie américaine ? La décision de la Cour suprême montre que la bataille politique promet d’être rude – mais elle peut être gagnée. Les juges constitutionnels américains avaient déjà tenté de bloquer l’impôt sur le revenu au XIXe siècle et le salaire minimum dans les années 30. Ils semblent bien partis pour jouer le même rôle réactionnaire, à l’image d’ailleurs du Conseil constitutionnel français, de plus en plus prompt à donner force de loi à ses opinions fiscales conservatrices, en toute bonne conscience.

28 Responses to “Translate Piketty?”

  1. Dan says:

    The continuing population growth , the dynamism of its universities and its innovations have so far preserved the countries of this drift. But this is not enough. Once already , around 1900-1920 , rising inequality sparked a national debate – it was the time of the Gilded Age , Rock- feller and The Great Gatsby . Thus the country was left to invent in the inter -war years a heavily progressive taxation on the highest incomes and assets inherited the most important , with higher marginal rates at or above 70% – 80% for half a century.
    Will you attend in the years and decades to come to a similar reaction of American democracy ? The decision of the Supreme Court shows that the political battle promises to be tough – but it can be won. American constitutional judges had tried to block the income tax in the nineteenth century and the minimum wage in the 30s they seem on track to play the same reactionary role , besides the image of the French Constitutional Council, more and more ready to give force to his conservative fiscal views, in good conscience .

    • Dan says:

      I just googled French translation, and they give you an option to just enter the text, and select what language you want it translated into. Technology is dope.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Well google translate made it readable, but it was clearly not a true translation (unless Piketty has a 6-year-old writing level). You’re saying the automatic translator did a great job?

        • Dan says:

          No, I wouldn’t say a great job, but that’s pretty good for just copying and pasting and having a program spit out a translation. I took French in high school, and the programs available back then were horrid. I think it’s pretty amazing how much these type of things have improved, and without even having to pay for some computer program.

        • Dan says:

          Plus, these free tools prevent some smarta** from giving you a bogus translation to mess with you, since you can roughly verify whether their giving you an accurate translation.

          • Dan says:

            Yikes! *They’re. Damn google translate!

        • Dan says:

          Also, what would Jeffrey Tucker say about google translate… http://mises.org/library/mcdonalds-paradigm-progress

        • David R. Henderson says:

          I looked at Dan’s translation compared to the original French and it’s pretty good.

        • Lio says:

          M Murphy,

          I am French and I thought that Google had done a good enough job. But if you say that this is not the case, I’m worried about my English. Perhaps the following translation is more appropriate (not sure):

          “The steady growth of the population, the dynamism of its universities and its innovations have hitherto preserved the countries of this drift. But this is not enough. Once before, around 1900-1920, rising income inequality has sparked a national debate – it was the time of the Golden Age, Rock-Feller and The Great Gatsby. Thus, in the years between the wars, the country was forced to invent a highly progressive tax on the highest incomes and inherited assets, with higher marginal rates equal to or greater than 70% – 80% for half a century.

          Do we assist to a similar reaction of American democracy in the years and decades to come? The decision of the Supreme Court shows that the political battle will be difficult – but it can be won. American constitutional judges had tried to prevent the creation of a tax on income in the nineteenth century and the minimum wage in the 30s. They seem on track to play the same reactionary role as the French Constitutional Council which is increasingly willing to give strength to his conservative fiscal views, in all good conscience.”

          • Harold says:

            “have hitherto preserved the countries of this drift. But this is not enough.” This is at best clumsy English, I do not know what “preserved the countries of this drift” means. Is it “kept the country moving in this direction?” I doubt a native speaker would put it the drift way. Is this Rock-feller a troll? I don’t think we can “assist to a similar reaction.”

            If we want only to extract the basic meaning from the text, then this is sufficient in most cases, but if we want to experience the text in a similar manner that a French speaker would experience the original, it is considerably more difficult. However, it is better than z’s translation (I think).

            • lio says:

              “preserved the countries of this drift”

              The problem is that we don’t know what is “préservé le pays de cette dérive” in the text. “Dérive” may mean a lot of different things depending on the context. Basically, this means that countries avoided some bad consequences thanks to things that Piketty listed at the beginning. Your “kept the country moving in this direction” seems to be a quite good translation.

              I agree that it is difficult to translate for a non-native speaker but what is the goal of M. Murphy here? Knowing the basic meaning or having a perfect translation?

          • Bob Murphy says:

            Thanks Lio.

        • Dan W. says:


          The Piketty paragraphs you excerpted are rather basic French. I once had rudimentary French language skills, not practiced in decades, and I was able to make sense of 75% of the vocabulary and grammar. If Piketty is making a populist argument his writing style is consistent with his politics.

        • Anonymous says:

          It seems to me that this is related to the economic thinking of a six-year-old, so by that standard, it is a good translation via Google.

      • Harold says:

        Here is an interesting take on machine translation.
        In the early days programmers tried to use dictionaries to do the translations, but idiom got in the way and machine translations were awful. then they used big data – a huge data set of actual use, a corpus.

        “If you have enough examples, you can correlate examples of real translations phrase by phrase with new documents that need to be translated. You mash them all up, and you end up with something that’s readable.”

        This is great, but the problem is

        “behind the curtain, is literally millions of human translators who have to provide the examples. The thing is, they didn’t just provide one corpus once way back. Instead, they’re providing a new corpus every day, because the world of references, current events, and slang does change every day. We have to go and scrape examples from literally millions of translators, unbeknownst to them, every single day, to help keep those services working. The problem here should be clear, but just let me state it explicitly: we’re not paying the people who are providing the examples to the corpora—which is the plural of corpus—that we need in order to make AI algorithms work. In order to create this illusion of a freestanding autonomous artificial intelligent creature, we have to ignore the contributions from all the people whose data we’re grabbing in order to make it work. That has a negative economic consequence.”

        Without rewarding the creators of the corpora, they will not exist.

        “What’s happened instead is that the structure through which we receive the efforts of real people in order to make translations happen has been optimized, but those people are still needed.

        This pattern—of AI only working when there’s what we call big data, but then using big data in order to not pay large numbers of people who are contributing—is a rising trend in our civilization, which is totally non-sustainable.”

  2. Z says:

    I was walking to my car when I noticed my pants were on fire. I turned to my friend and said, “I think were going to need an oven and fast.” He grabbed me with his soggy fingers and said.. “Snap out of it, Man.” Then he proceeded to chant and walk in circles around me. I looked down, My pants were still on fire, but by this time it had spread to my Uterus and three other ligaments. I was getting pretty agitated that no one seemed to care about my third degree burns, or my soon imminent death, but I went along with his plan still hoping he’d manage to save me through his voo-doo witchcraft. After I came out of my trance from the fire I noticed that I was now in the kitchen of my grandma’s house baking a cake..

    I Screamed “WHAT THE F***?” My Grandma ran in and slapped the s*** outta me for cursing. Then she proceeded to say, “I swear if you talk like that 5 more times, I’ll beat the living s*** outta you.” I was quite confused as to what was going on and what I did to deserve this true life mad lib. I just stood there in silence with a look of uttermost confusion.. and I starred at the women who had once been a kind sweet old lady, who wouldn’t even kill a baby piglet, now turned into this vicious beast of a monster with veins protruding from her neck like a porcupines quills on a midsummer day.

    • JimS says:

      Are you nuts? Were did you study your French, New Orleans?

      My translation is:

      My baloney has a first name;
      It’s O-S-C-A-R,
      My baloney has a second name,
      It’s M-A-Y-E-R.
      Oh I love to eat it every day,
      and if you ask me why I’ll say,
      Because Thomas Pikkety has a way with

      The French do know their pig products.

  3. Transformer says:

    I think the gist of it is probably:

    “People who run successful businesses become rich really quickly – and even people who just save part of their income each year become rich over time, and that’s really not fair on everyone else so lets tax their wealth away. If you want to understand economics just read Jane Austen or Balzac.”.

    Or something like that.

  4. Dan W. says:

    Translation (a): “You didn’t build that”
    Translation (b): “We’re screwed”

    It is a multiple choice test…

  5. Lio says:

    For those who understand french, here’s a link to an interesting video conference organized by some french (classical) liberals about Piketty’s book:


    This conference is entitled “Piketty, the big bluff of the twenty-first century”.

  6. Scott H. says:

    Google looks pretty good. My recommendation would be to go to any particular sentence that is a concern or potentially tricky, and get those crucial points ironed out with a good human translator.

  7. Scott H. says:

    Hmmm… So, I read it. I would change the translation on the last part…

    “besides the image of the French Constitutional Council, more and more ready to give force to his conservative fiscal views, in good conscience.”


    “much like the French Constitutional Council, which, more and more, is ready to force its fiscal conservative views on the rest of us, in good conscience.”

    Other than that it was a combination of google doing a good job and Piketty not saying anything important anyway.

    • Scott H. says:

      Sorry, there should be no “on the rest of us” there at the end.

  8. Innocent says:

    Okay here is my attempt

    La croissance perpétuelle de la population, le dynamisme de ses universités et de ses innovations ont pour l’instant préservé le pays de cette dérive

    The ever increasing growth of population, the dynamic universities and their inventions have for this instant preserved countries on their unplanned journey.

    Mais cela ne suffit plus.

    But this is not sufficient. – But this is not enough.

    Une première fois déjà, vers 1900-1920, la montée des inégalités avait suscité un vaste débat national – c’était l’époque du Gilded Age, de Rock-feller et de Gatsby le Magnifique

    One time during 1900 – 1920 the growing inequality had come to the national debate. It was the epic gilded age of Rockefeller and the magnificent Gatsby.

    To be honest the little nuance that you get from understanding the french is more than anything simply your own understanding of the words themselves. As I read it I disagree a little with the translation that Google or whatever the engine was that gave it but more than anything it is over semantics.

    I did not have time to complete it but you can see that even the gist of what I have written agrees pretty closely to the google translation

    • Bob Murphy says:


    • Harold says:

      Now here is a possibly significant nuance. By drift, does he mean unplanned journey, or just direction of travel? I have no idea, but it could make a difference.

      • Innocent says:

        In this case he is referencing in the usage of these words the concept of ‘drift’ that exists in France as an unplanned journey. Much like the formation of a city is ‘unplanned’ as it grows organically. For more of a reference on this see


        In my translation I am taking into consideration that connotation that he is not talking about ‘drift’ but rather the way countries have managed without organization to sustain their economies thus far. While this is a weakness in the translation I do not KNOW that mine is any MORE correct. This is part of the problem in translating any work ( Ancient Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Latin ) that you have as much in the manner of the translators understanding of the text and their own grasp of concepts that they think the original writer was attempting to convey in their native tongue.

        A phrase I love in Italian is ‘In giro’ however the exact translation into English is… complicated. Here is a page with a bunch of adequate but not complete meanings of such a simple Italian phrase…


        So when I say that the Google translation or whatever it was is adequate, I mean just that. You can translate it any number of other ways that ‘work’. In my own translation I ignored certain words and choose to convey additional meaning

        la montée des inégalités avait suscité un vaste débat national

        the growing of the inequality had ( given rise to ) ( brought about ) ( resulted in ) ( created ) ( wrought ) ( raised ) ( introduced ) ( generated ) a vast debate nationally.

        All of these phrases WOULD BE AN ACCEPTABLE translation to the phrase in this case. My own in fact differs from all of this since I kept it simple and said.

        the growing inequality had come to the national debate

        I could have changed growing to mounting or even compounding and still been ‘correct’ in the translation.

        What I was simply trying to convey is unfortunately debating someone in a different language is… complex. You do not know all of the possible nuance in a phrase or statement without being familiar with the language and even then you may well fall short of seeing that one word can have multiple meanings. Take Genesis. I could rather than say God Created the World say He formed it. Both are an appropriate translation in this case as well. However you can argue that the meaning VASTLY changes the understanding that one person would then take away from the conversation.

        So while wording is important the translation done by the robotic translator is adequate. I do not say it is perfect but as you can see even from my own translation it is dependent on MY understanding of what he ( Picketty – not God, though at this point I think Picketty might argue for the position ) MAY have meant contextually.

        I will say I find the writing very high minded and sure of itself. I dislike the author simply from the wording he used. I especially resent the concept that Universities are one of the drivers that have kept nations in ‘check’ despite their disregard for a ‘planned’ economy that he presents in this. As though Utopias that have been attempted before have not been planned by academics, which then fail miserably. But I am sure Picketty thinks he can do a much better job than the last fools who tried it.

        Sorry, the other reason I stopped the translation is I do not enjoy intellectual toilet spouting. Where you grab a few facts, ignore the context, and justify your current desire without any ‘grounded’ reasoning.

        I would love to see how someone else having wealth makes me more poor. I am poorer if I am not allowed to engage in trade, that has nothing to do with the wealth that someone else ‘owns’ it is a facet of government that restricts trade and creates ‘regulation’. That is the thing that impacts wealth and wealth creation. But I wax foolishly philosophical when we were really simply asking about translations lol.

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