Beat the Machine: Weaving Musical Genres in Austria?

A vintage toy robot
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Welcome to part two of our inaugural Beat the Machine mini translation slam! In our July post, I asked FLD members to re-translate a complicated sentence to improve upon the machine translation output provided in the post. Now it’s time to review some of the submissions!

Before diving in, I would like to acknowledge that I may have had a little bit of hubris when selecting this first sentence. One of my favorite FLD members suggested it and I thought, “perfect, this thing is a mess, let’s do it!” Then I sat down to tackle it myself and… eesh, this sentence really was a challenge! The good news is that this has been a fun learning experience for us all, and I now know what I’m looking for in future sentences. The other good news is that many of our colleagues were clearly less daunted than I and submitted some really creative solutions. So, let’s dig in!

To refresh our memory, this was the sentence we were working with:

L’excellentissime pianiste classique autrichien Friedrich Gulda n’eût peut-être pas été d’accord, lui qui ne cessa de transgresser les deux grands ordres (jazz et classique) en les reprisant et déprisant dans des concerts qui filaient standards de jazz, classiques des classiques.

And here’s what DeepL gave us:

Perhaps the excellent Austrian classical pianist Friedrich Gulda would not have agreed, as he never stopped transgressing the two great orders (jazz and classical) by reproducing them in concerts that spun jazz standards, classics from classics.

As foreshadowed, there are a lot of things we’re working with here. There are four different parts to this monster, so let’s take it part by part before addressing some really neat things some people did with the structure of the sentence as a whole.

L’excellentissime pianiste classique autrichien Friedrich Gulda…

In the first seven words, everyone agrees about three of them. “Friedrich Gulda” and “Austrian” are pretty concrete! Things immediately diverge after that. Some of the options for excellentissime were excellent, brilliant, and outstanding. However, two people did something pretty clever here, opting for “virtuoso” in English. This is particularly delightful because it folds the level of skill into the noun: Friedrich Gulda, classical piano virtuoso. The alternative, [adjective] + [classical pianist], is perfectly accurate, but virtuoso conveys a level of talent beyond “excellent” that better matches excellentissime (the –issime meaning very excellent) and changes up the sentence structure ever so slightly.

…n’eût peut-être pas été d’accord…

Everyone went with either “would not have agreed” or “would have disagreed.” This a fun reminder that you can structure even seemingly straightforward text more than one way. The difference is slight, but real, and which option is “better” depends on the rest of the sentence: is the goal fewer total words? Shorter words? Depending on the context, choosing something like “may have begged to differ,” could potentially be great.

…lui qui ne cessa de transgresser les deux grands ordres (jazz et classique)…

Here’s where things start to get messy. Ne cessa de became: ceaselessly, always, continued to, constantly, and continually. So many options to convey “something that never stops!” Transgresser is clearly a problem in English, as “to transgress” is much weightier than just mixing musical genres, not to mention the moral or religious overtones. DeepL fell right into this trap. Our human options here included “intermixed,” and “transcended.” My favorite solutions were “went outside the box,” which, while it could use a stronger verb than “went,” encompasses the notion of transgressing in a more palatable way, and my very favorite, “pushed the limits.” He didn’t necessarily break the boundaries, as a transgression might suggest, but he’s right up against it.

…en les reprisant et déprisant dans des concerts…

Oh no, wordplay in the source! The holy grail here would be to come up with something that has the same kind of parallelism or at least some kind of interplay as reprisant et déprisant. Options included: “combining and undoing them,” (accurate, if not a little clunky), “reappraising and transforming,” (yet clunkier, in my opinion). “Taking them apart and putting them back together”: we’re getting there, it’s literal but closer to the mark. “Deconstructing and reconstructing,” is almost there and is the best non-metaphorical option that was submitted; it checks both boxes, opposite words with a similar structure to match the source.

However, there was one superlative submission here that does all of the above but also leads into the next part of the sentence beautifully: “unraveling and reweaving them in concerts.” I swooned.

…qui filaient standards de jazz, classiques des classiques.

The swoon-worthy submission continues: “…that spun together jazz standards and classical classics.” This is why I love this option so much for the previous part. The translator saw filer in this section and put it to excellent use in the previous one, using a thread metaphor to describe how Gulda took apart and reassembled the musical components. The use of “spun” continues the metaphor perfectly.

Lastly, “classical classics,” submitted by two translators, is snappy and alliterative, and I don’t know what more you could ask.

Sentence breaks? What are those?

This mouthful of a French sentence reminds us that what is valued for style in French doesn’t always correspond to what we look for in English: French sentences can run on and on and on. And I actually chopped this sucker in half before issuing this challenge! Two of the translators used a period and broke it into two fully separate sentences; one person used a semicolon for the same purpose. One option that surprised me was to pull the initial verb (“might have disagreed”) all the way to the end, so it read something like “Friedrich Gulda, [description], who [did the things], may well have disagreed.” This, again, is a decision where context matters, and this option may or may not flow into what comes next in the text. But it certainly has the option to, and that’s awesome. Next time, I’ll provide more context so that we can better evaluate options like this one.

Putting it all together, this is a string combining my personal favorite individual translation solutions for this sentence:

Friedrich Gulda, the classical piano virtuoso who continually pushed the limits of two great genres (jazz and classical), unraveling and reweaving them in concerts that spun together jazz standards and classical classics, may well have disagreed.

You know what? I think that’s pretty good! That’s a well-crafted sentence. And, given the notable lack of preceding or following sentences, I can claim it is ideal for the context. So… whew! We made it! I hope that it was useful and informative to see how many options there are for even simple phrases, and what neat things you can achieve with even mundane words. Stay tuned for next month, where we’ll do it all again (with a more approachable sentence this time!).

Did you forget to submit a translation in time? Not to worry! Share your version on Twitter and tag the French Language Division (@ATA_FLD) and me, @SamTranslates.

If you would like to submit a sentence for a future slam, I would like that very much! You can contact me, Sam Mowry, directly at sam [at] or on Twitter at the handle listed above. You can also contact the À Propos Editor Ben Karl at ben [at]

If you’d like to help launch a similar slam but into French, please also reach out!