Together, let's do what?

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I happened to be walking past the Abramson Cancer Center this afternoon, and this reminded me that every day last summer in Paris, I walked past the Institut Curie, whose building was adorned in several places with the slogan "Ensemble, prenons le cancer de vitesse" — as on the home page of their web site:

The first time I saw the slogan, I only caught the "… le cancer de vitesse" part, which seemed like part of an appeal to slow down and smell the roses, so to speak, avoiding the metaphorical cancer of excessive dedication to speed above all. But then the first couple of words came into my visual field, and I briefly thought that it was a prank or a protest or something, meaning "Together, let's get cancer quickly".

But the sign was too slick for a prank or a protest, and given the context, I quickly realized what must be going on. On reflection, I recognized that French prendre, whose basic English gloss is "take", is not commonly used for "getting" a disease. In the context of this slogan, I inferred, it must mean something like something like "take control of", as in "Les soldats ont pris la ville" (= "The soldiers have taken the town"). And a bit of internet search turned up the fact that prendre quelqu'un de vitesse is apparently an idiom meaning to overtake or outrace someone.

But Google Translate renders the slogan as "Together, consider the speed of cancer":

And Bing Translator thinks it means "Together, take cancer speed":

So I don't feel bad about not taking its meaning quickly. Or maybe I should say, about not getting the point right away.


  1. Bruce said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

    If you supply Google Translate the text "Ensemble, Prenons le cancer de vitesse" it is translated as "Together Let's beat cancer". Switching the P to a p reverts it to what you report. I wonder if we're benefiting from somebody's hand-modification of a bad translation.

  2. JB said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

    Idiom aside, this could also be taken as "to take on."

  3. DG said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

    Bruce, Google Translate and SMT in general is very often highly unstable. Changing capitalization, or adding a comma often causes it to switch between translation A and translation B, just because the scores jump around, or sometimes even because a capitalized word or phrase has an entirely different set of translations than one that's not. It may seem dumb, but actually this reflects the statistical reality: bush is different from Bush.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    DG, to be fair, adding a comma to some text often really does radically change the meaning.

    Capitalization is generally meaningless, and particularly so if you're able to parse sentences. Sadly, google translate can't do that.

  5. Bruce said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    Note that the substitution of "Prenons" for "prenons" produces a capital L in the otherwise correct English translation. In addition, if you remove the word "Ensemble" with any capitalization choice the translation is again what Dr Liberman notes, even though the meaning must be nearly the same. This is what leads me to suspect it's a user-selected modification, but as DG notes, highly specific to context.

  6. GH said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 2:30 am

    If the topic sounds familiar, it was previously touched upon here:

  7. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 2:30 am

    Idiom aside, this could also be taken as "to take on."


  8. GH said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 2:31 am

    (And now I see that Dr. Liberman included that link in the post already.)

  9. Derry said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 4:09 am

    It doesn't have to be in a second language. The 2013 Cancer Reaserch slogon misled me every time I saw it.

    Cancer, we're coming to get you.

    The TV ad's intent was clearer with a pack of runners chasing something, but the posters didn't have these clues to steer the mind from the idea of "getting cancer".

  10. pep said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 4:52 am

    Capitalization/non capitalization results in two different translations into Catalan and Italian -which are languages close to French-

    with a P: Catalan- Agafeu la velocitat del càncer
    Italian- Prendere la velocità di cancro

    with a p: Catalan- prendre el càncer de ritme
    Italian – prendere il cancro ritmo These two are totally meaningless -and don´t even respect the conjugated verbal form- but, on the other side, maybe closer to the original meaning of the french sentence

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 7:11 am

    The semantic extensions of verbs meaning 'take' in several Mediterranean-area languages are definitely tricky. In Italian prendere often just corresponds to English get and is specifically often used to mean 'buy', as well as being what you do to diseases. Google currently translates Dove hai preso queste pesche? correctly as Where did you get these peaches?, but fails to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate acquisition in the corresponding statement Ho preso queste pesche al supermercato, which comes out as I took these peaches at the supermarket. As for diseases, the role of frequency in translation algorithms is apparent from the fact that prendere is correctly translated as catch if the object is a cold or malaria, but as take if it's diphtheria (and get if it's measles, whatever that proves).

  12. ajay said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 7:48 am

    The 2013 Cancer Research slogan misled me every time I saw it.

    Cancer, we're coming to get you.

    I thought it was quite a neat reversal. Normally you're afraid that you will get cancer. But now cancer should be afraid!

    ("Chuck Norris doesn't get cancer. Cancer gets Chuck Norris.")

  13. Ray said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    I saw a recent ad for md anderson cancer center that also uses play on words in its slogan — with mixed results, depending how you hear the pauses. the voiceover concludes: "But cancer? We're fighting you. With immune therapies, and genetic testing. With laughter. And with strength. Because every one of us is doing one thing only. Making cancer. History."

  14. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    My local PBS affiliate held a premiere party for the Ken Burns film Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. So for a while I was getting emails and postcards inviting me to "RSVP now for Cancer!"

  15. Sam Buggeln said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    I find it funny to read too: it looks to my first glance like "Let's choose the fast cancer!" which would seem like something not to do. I think it's a kind of French "crash blossom" to the English eye. I read "le cancer de vitesse" as meaning "(the) fast cancer" (lit. the cancer of speed) because I'm not familiar with the phrase "prendre de vitesse" which google translate renders as "overtake". I would have guessed it from context if it could have said "prenons de vitesse le cancer" but I guess that's not how objects work with verb clauses in French.

  16. D.O. said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    Institut Curie's own webpage translates the slogan as "Together, let's beat cancer".
    Incredibly, while "Prenons le cancer de vitesse" is translated as "Take the speed of cancer" doping the article gives "Prenons cancer de vitesse" -> "Let us beat cancer".
    If G n-grams to be believed, ratio of le cancer to cancer stayed within 20-25% range during the 20th century and has fallen a bit since then. The combined percentages of le/du/en cancer slided from about 50% through mid 20th century to slightly about 30% now. I hope someone who actually knows French can explain.

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