In Issue 2/2023

In previous columns, I have discussed the importance of connotation and the difficulty of transcribing a speech word for word because of homophones—that is, two different words that sound the same, such as “their” and “there”. In this column, I will talk about homophones and referents—the person or thing to which a word refers, such as how “Carlo” is used to refer to me.

To do this, I will discuss an example from the French Parliament. On 3 November 2022, the black French MP Carlos Martens Bilongo was questioning the Government on the request by a cargo vessel for Paris’s help in finding a port for 234 migrants rescued at sea. In the middle of the question, the far-right MP Grégoire de Fournas shouted something that has been interpreted as:

  • “Retourne en Afrique” (“Go back to Africa”), or
  • “Qu’il retourne en Afrique” (“He/it should go back to Africa”), or
  • “Qu’ils retournent en Afrique” (“They should go back to Africa”).

The far-right MPs claimed that de Fournas said either, “It should go back to Africa”, or, “They should go back to Africa”, referring to the cargo or the migrants. The other MPs claimed that he said either, “Go back to Africa”, or, “He should go back to Africa”, referring to Bilongo. Because of the tension caused, the Speaker of the Parliament suspended the sitting and waited for the parliamentary report to be published before taking any decision about de Fournas.

The French parliamentary reporters were handed a heavy responsibility: deciding for, “Retourne en Afrique”, would have triggered heavy consequences for the far-right MP, while deciding for, “Qu’ils retournent en Afrique”, would have acquitted him. In preparing the report, they faced two dilemmas:

  1. Did he say “qu’il(s)” or not?
  2. Did he say “qu’ils retournent” or “qu’il retourne”?

The first option could be addressed by carefully listening to the recording, despite the far-right MP speaking off-mike. The second was impossible to determine, however, as “qu’ils retournent” and “qu’il retourne” sound the same in French.

Given that acoustics and linguistics were of no help, the French reporters wisely opted for, “Qu’il retourne en Afrique”, which has the huge advantage of being ambiguous when it comes to the referent. In fact, the French pronoun “il” may refer to both people and objects.   

In the end, the Parliament didn’t have any scientific evidence to base their decision on. Despite this, all parties’ MPs, except those of de Fournas’s party, agreed to sanction him. Basically, they arbitrarily decided that “il” referred to Bilongo, and not to the cargo, meaning that he meant to be racist against his black colleague, as his party is well known for its white supremacism.

Congratulations to the French reporters on their capacity to deal with such a tricky situation, demonstrating once again that diamesic translation, such as speech-to-text reporting, requires many more skills than just transcribing what is said—something that a machine is unlikely to replace. On the other hand, deciding what someone means on the basis of one’s prejudices looks much less valuable.

Carlo Eugeni is Tiro’s Scientific Advisor.

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