Discussion in 'French-English Vocabulary / Vocabulaire Français-Anglais' started by maitrekapelo, Apr 8, 2007.
How can I translate in english 'usine à gaz'?
une "usine à gaz" est une expression récente qui désigne un ensemble de systèmes compliqués qui fait tout et n'importe quoi.
Rien à voir avec le gaz
pardon j'aurais dû être plus précis. Effectivement, cette expression désigne quelque chose de flou qui fait tout et n'importe quoi. LOrsque l'on essaie de comprendre ce que ce quelque chose fait on se rend compte que finalement il ne fait rien
according to wikipedia : En français, l'expression "usine à gaz " est un terme péjoratif, désignant quelque chose de très grand, de très compliqué, voire de très coûteux et dont on a beaucoup parlé, mais ne servant pas ou ne produisant pas grand chose en réalité.
top-heavy, unwieldy, slow and impractical: "a Heath Robinson device"/"a kludge".
Originally, an "usine à gaz" is the place containing the huge tanks in which gas is stored for distribution to the consumers. Consequently, it is not an "usine" at all, just a storage installation. Hence the use of the expression to speak about something big, looking complicated, costly, but not doing much (in the 50s, it was the name given to the computers of the time, which covered 500m2 and weighed 30 tonnes). SO, if the English text was talking about the original "usine à gaz", the translation would be "gas storage plant". Now, in the new interpretation, I would suggest "White elephant".
The phrase is also used to criticize new boards and commissions that are created and are completely phoney and useless. White elephant and kludge sound perfect.
Recently I've seen several references to "usine à gaz" where it clearly does not mean a gasworks. An example to hand: a newspaper headline "Les pharmaciens craignent l'usine à gaz" about opposition to the proposed "franchise" on medecines and which contains this text from the journalist quoting a pharmacist
"..<<...Mais ceux qui ont des maladies graves...(qui) sont trop pauvres pour pouvoir se soigner normalement..>> Sans compter assure-t-il, qu'il << craint l'usine à gaz!>> Et de se demander sur quel prorata des 9/12 on va calcular le forfait pour une femme enceinte, ..etc" There's nothing else in the article which helps.
I can barely make a guess: the whole system blowing up?
A usine à gaz is a Rube Goldberg machine. An unneccessarily complicated creation that functions poorly.
Une usine à gaz is a setup, a device, a regulation so complex you can know from the start that it will not work satisfactorily.
Is RuK's suggestion widely understood in the English-speaking world ?
Yes, they are very well known under this name.
I think Wildan1's answer applies to AE. I'd never heard of Rube Goldberg and, while RUK obviously has, I doubt many in the UK would have. We'd say "Heath-Robinson machine" (after a well-known, in the UK, cartoonist).
You are correct. Rube Goldberg was a famous US political cartoonist who drew many of these imiginary machines as a way to criticize bureaucracies, etc.
It seems that a similar concept is expressed locally in different ways around the world, according to Wikipedia--all seemingly inspired by cartoonists.
I have carefully looked into every proposition but I'm not really satisfied. What about "black box" ?
A black box figuratively describes a process that is complex but unclear at this time.
It may need the complexity, however, so calling something a black box simply means it is so far unexplainable. It does not usually carry the criticism usine à gaz carries. I think the other suggestions above are better.
See this discussion of black box.
Separate names with a comma.