Hints and Hindsights: Translating Franglais
A French diplomat declares, in English, “Israel is going to eat Iran!” His remarks race around the globe in an epidemic of Internet virulence. Damage-controlling semioticians sprint to join their image-making counterparts and prep for an international-relations storm.
The mayor of a hurricane-hit French town tells a journalist, in English, “We have nothing!” Donations start pouring in from the Anglo world. The townsfolk are gratefulbut extremely perplexed.
A French exchange student in Ohio bursts in from a long day at school, slams down his books and screams, in English, “I ate my math teacher!” His host parents recoil in horror.
What do these scenes have in common? The danger of people’s speaking English using French words and sounds. And the importance of understanding them when they do.
Those who know French very well immediately understand that for the diplomat, because all “h”es are silent (interestingly, even what French calls “aspirated h”es are not soundedalthough they impact pronunciation of the words that precede them) and all “i”s are pronounced “eeeeeeeeee,” “hit” came out as “eat.” (Granted, the impact on Iran would be essentially the same.)
They recognize that Nous n’avons rienan answer to Qu’est-ce que vous avez?!refers not to material goods but to physical or psychological harm. The mayor was reassuring the journalist that his constituents had survived those winds and rains very well, thank you!
They can laugh at the fact that that unpronounced “h” turned the student’s feeling of animosity into an act of cannibalism.
So, to help you comprehend your French neighbor, boss, bakery-lady, internship applicants and their compatriots when they address you in what they think is your native tongue, here is a (very, very incomplete!) translating Franglais-to-English primer:
- You call the lady who advertised for an au-pair. She says the job involves taking care of her “son” and pays minimum-wage. Fair enough, you think-how much work can one little kid entail? You show up and meet the childplus his three brothers! That pesky unpronounced final “s.”
- Do not pantomime wiping off your face Three Stooges-style. No, the French are not spitting at you when they say “pppppppsychiatrist,” “pppppppsychologist,” “pppppppsychic.” That’s the way initial “ps” is pronounced.
- “Everyone who joins this congregation,” the local priest informs you and your family, “has a marvelous face!” “Well, that leaves me out,” says your wife, walking away despondently. WAIT! WAIT! Monsieur le curé did not mean that his flock was composed of supermodels. Forgetting that he has two rows of teeth and a tongue, and that in order to pronounce the “th” of “faith,” all he had to do was put his tongue between his teeth and blow, he took the French way out and transformed “th” into “s/ce.” (The reason the French “s”ify their “th”s is not the “th” itself. It’s what comes after it. Because French does not contain words made up of long strings of consonants, when confronted by these, its speakers are unable to retract their tongues fast enough from a position in one sound to get into position for the next sound on time. Turning “th” into a less lingually demanding “s” solves that problem, transforming “thousandths” into “sousanss,” “downthrust” into “downsrust” and “heartthrob” in “heartsrob.”)
- The definite article
You are interviewing a candidate for a job. You say, “Well, enough about your professional experience. Tell me a bit about what you do in your spare time.” The eager candidate says, “I like the dogs.” You ask, “Which dogs.” The candidate answers, “The dogs. Just…the dogs.” You start getting a bit impatient. You say, “Don’t get smart with me, young man! I am asking you which dogs?” “The dogs! The dogs!” As you slam-dunk the applicant’s resume into your poubelle, your native-French-speaking assistant informs you that whereas in English, “the” is used to designate the specific (“the dogs that my grandfather left me in his will,” “the dogs that are sitting over there in the corner of your office”), in French it’s just the opposite: “the” is used to designate the general. Your applicant was telling you that possibly any and every dog on Planet Earth would help him while away his leisure hours.
- Faux Amis*
- One (among many) dangerous faux ami: Your credit card bill shows charges for purchases you didn’t make. You call your banker, who is more than happy to help but cannot access your file because the bank’s computers are down. She tells you to call back tomorrow. Tomorrow she tells you the system is “always” down. In reaction to her apparent admission that your problem will never be solved by her technologically challenged establishment, you immediately undertake the arduous task of changing banks, not knowing that “always” in French means both “all the time” and “still,” and that all you needed to change was your impatient attitude.
- One (among many, many) funny faux ami: You’re helping your brother-in-law move. Unable to lift a carton full of books, he screams, “You know what we need here? A devil [un diable]!” (If the roles were reversed and you said to a clueless non-native speaker, “You know what we need here? A dolly!” the shock might be equally intense.)
- The Third-Person Singular Possessive Adjective
Your colleague tells you, “My son and her wife are coming for Christmas dinner.” Now you have to guess: Is your colleague’s son a transsexual? Is your colleague’s son coming with the wife of a gay woman of whose existence you are supposed to be so aware that your colleague does not need to refer to the woman by name? Is this about some newly revealed gender combination / permutation that scientists have been studying in obscurity for years? Other? All of the above? Answer: None of the above. In French, the possessive adjective (here, “her”) agrees in gender with that which is possessed, as opposed to agreeing in gender with the possessor.
“You have an interesting last name. What’s its origin?”
“Funny you should ask. My father researches that.”
“Really? I though he was an accountant.”
“He is. He researches our name.”
“But what does researching a name have to do with accounting?”
“Nothing. He is an accountant and he researches our name.”
Ahhhh, if only French had a present-continuous tense−a [to be] + [verb] + ing tense−to signal that we’re talking about something happening right now!
Keep your eye out for future entries in the Hints-Hindsights Franglais-to-English translation primer.
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.