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First, I apologize if I'm posting this to the wrong place, but it seems correct.

My adviser sent me the SGA text of Grothendieck which is in French. Though I can piece together parts of the text, I'm afraid that I'm losing significant parts of the meaning when I just have no idea what a sentence says. Google Translate was not terribly helpful. I was wondering what the standard techniques are for dealing with papers in a foreign language.

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Struggle. Gerhard "Did It. You Can Too" Paseman, 2014.07.12 –  Gerhard Paseman Jul 13 '14 at 2:49
You can also play the "decryption" game, looking for certain recurring phrases or patterns of sentence (and French mathematical vocabulary is quite close to English mathematical vocabulary, IMHO). –  Yemon Choi Jul 13 '14 at 3:31
Have you spoken to your advisor about this? –  KConrad Jul 13 '14 at 5:49
It is very simple: pick a book by Serre which you've read in English, get a French copy, and go through it line by line over the course of a couple of days to make a small dictionary. That's all you need for the "real words" that come up in math French. You do not need to learn any serious grammar or take any courses. One book by Serre will be entirely sufficient to get going, plus practice. I have read thousands of pages of hard math in French and cannot read a French menu. Yes, it would be best to actually know the language. But to read math in French does not require knowing French. –  user27920 Jul 13 '14 at 6:49
Google Translate is a poor source of definitions for technical jargon, but Wikipedia is not bad. You should also make an effort to learn standard expressions, like "Soit... Alors..." and "genau dann, wenn...". Thankfully there are not many expressions to learn, as mathematical writing tends to be very 'stiff' and formulaic compared to ordinary prose. –  Colin Reid Jul 13 '14 at 9:25

3 Answers 3

Swallow the frog. I did it. You know what it tasted good!

I suggest you learn French, I did it and I am very happy about the result. Now I can read very easily French papers and books. Most importantly, I can see the difference between reading French papers word-by-word and reading when you know elements of French language. The main difficulty for understanding French texts is to figure out the correct meaning of articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc. You can't effectively understand a text without being acquainted with them. Therefore, you need to learn French at least at the intermediate level. Reading French papers using a dictionary (and without a basic acquaintance with the French language) is very difficult and often causes misunderstanding.

If you intend to stay in mathematics for the rest of your life, soon or late you need to learn French. Sometimes the only reference for a subject is in French and without that particular reference you can't proceed your research. It happened to me almost every year, so I decided to learn French.

I said in the above that the frog tasted good. By that I mean first I expected it to be horribly difficult, but after a while and using new softwares, not only it wasn't that hard, but also it was kind of fun. In fact after studying some serious mathematics, studying every other subject in the world seems easy and entertaining!

Edit: For some dictionaries see my post here.

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Though that is certainly good advice in the long term, that is entirely unhelpful in that I should have finished the paper by Wednesday. I suppose using something like Duolingo would help with the pronouns and articles etc. which were admitidly causing the most confusion. –  Thoth19 Jul 13 '14 at 5:03
So maybe the dictionaries in the above link helps you for now. –  Vahid Shirbisheh Jul 13 '14 at 5:05
You can also look for French language fora (perhaps on Stackexchange), and ask for help. Best to build up a few related questions before asking. Also, you can try searching for those phrases appearing elsewhere, and see if the translation works on those documents you find. In some places you can find a helpful person who can speed up the translation process (perhaps another student who did the work already). Gerhard "Had To Use Paper Dictionary" Paseman, 2014.07.12 –  Gerhard Paseman Jul 13 '14 at 5:15
+1 for "Swallow the frog". –  darij grinberg Jul 13 '14 at 10:22
For an English speaking mathematician, learning enough French to read Math should not be difficult. After all 60% of words are essentially the same (thanks to Guillome I) and this includes all math terminology. So all you need is some basic grammar and 200 or so common words. –  Alexandre Eremenko Jul 13 '14 at 14:32

When I met my adviser for the first time, he gave me some math papers to read. This was in 1971; personal computers did not exist yet, not speaking of Google translate:-) We spoke in Russian with my adviser. I proudly said that I can read English and French, but not German. His reply was: "A mathematician has to read in all languages"! So I spent a summer learning some basic German. However my German is still weak, and I feel this has a negative influence on my research. Two years later my advisor gave me a paper in Catalan...

Later I moved to the US, and I know several English speaking mathematicians who learned Russian to read mathematics. But the ability to read in 3 principal languages (English, German and French) was considered a norm in my generation for all mathematicians.

French is especially useful, because after you learn French, you can also read math papers in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan, with a dictionary:-)

It is true, after 1980-s they are not writing math in German anymore, with rare exceptions. But so much interesting math is already written in German! Very few books and almost no papers are translated into English from German and French. And those translations which exist are usually very poor.

Recently I was discussing with my British colleague a translation of one classic Russian book. He said that he does not really care, because he prefers to read math in the original language. He does not speak Russian and never took a course in it. But still he prefers to read Russian math books in Russian.

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Какая русская книга? –  KConrad Jul 13 '14 at 6:36
Русская книга хорошая! :-) –  Włodzimierz Holsztyński Jul 13 '14 at 8:03
This falls under the same trap as some of the comments.This was meant for the short term. Learning one or more languages in less than a week is/was not an option. –  Thoth19 Jul 15 '14 at 6:51
Recipe for one week: find a friend mathematician who can read French. –  Alexandre Eremenko Jul 15 '14 at 14:14

You can try to seek assistance in a translation site such as http://www.proz.com. This is a global site connecting clients and translators from around the world. Although there are few professional translators who understand advanced mathematics, such creatures may exist if you seek translation from a common language like French. You can register at the site and offer the job with all your conditions. Then you select the translator who suits you most.

I would not expect a high-quality result, but you can help the translator by providing her/him with the terminology of the subject field.

The down side is that it can cost you several hundred $, depending on the length of the paper.

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