There is no shortage of political or diplomatic incidents in international archives caused by mistranslations, often due to false friends. Some blunders, however, are comical rather than harmful.
One such example is cited in John Coleman-Holmes’s book Mâcher du Coton. As a Spanish speaker once started to address the delegates of a conference by saying “Please excuse me, I have a cold”, the French side suddenly burst into laughter. Curious as to the cause of this hubbub, the rest of the delegation tuned into the French channel, looking towards the interpreters’ booths. In a lapse of concentration, the Spanish-to-French interpreter had translated “Estoy constipado, perdónadme” as “Excuse me, I’m constipated”.
Mistakes (and painful embarrassment) happen to us all…
A new bill was discussed at the French Assembly yesterday proposing to allow classes in universities to be taught in English to encourage foreign students to come and study in the Hexagone. The proposal is causing no small stir, with some claiming that such a law would turn the French language into an “ordinary language, or worse, a dead language” (Bernard Pivot).
The Constitution stipulates that, in the name of equality and access to the same education for all, education must be provided in French only. For the same reason, local minority languages have never been recognised by the State.
There are long-standing fears amongst the more conservative French nationals concerning the longevity of the Francophonie (French-speaking culture). Just like the British seem never to have recovered from the loss of their great empire, with some still sulking on the fence about Europe (to the amusement and/or annoyance of the rest of the Union as well as part of the British population itself), many French still cling on to the memory of the long-gone days when the ability to speak their language was considered a sign of refinement and erudition in many cultures across Europe and beyond (to the amusement and/or annoyance of rest of the French population).
In light of the polemic and in support of the proposal, the newspaper Libération published on Tuesday a front page entirely in English, advising in its article, “Let’s stop behaving like the last representatives of a Gaulish village under siege”.
If this new law is passed, i.e. not considered anti-constitutional, will it create a precedent for Breton, Alsatian, Basque and other languages to gain recognition at long last?
Cartoon by Uderzo
Because my name looks French, people assume that I am French (which could be a mistake since names can be misleading, especially in the case of a woman). So when I send a thank-you e-mail to someone, I sometimes get a reply saying “Mon plaisir!”, a literal translation of the English “my pleasure”.
Unfortunately, literal translation rarely works. In this case, “mon plaisir” is suggestive of something personal that I’d rather not think about… Why do people randomly mention their pleasure to me? That’s not the sort of e-mails I want to see in my inbox.
PS: The right phrase is “(Tout) le plaisir est pour moi”. Nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.
Contrary to the well-outdated French-British feuds that some like to cling on to, I realised 15 years ago that, despite having left France, I could not escape the French. The French presidential election results also revealed that there were currently just over 1 million French citizens living abroad.
This week, the BBC has reported that many from the new French generation seem quite happy to call the UK home, more than any generation before. The French Consulate in London estimates that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 French expatriates in London alone, more than in Nantes or Bordeaux, so it could be dubbed “the 6th French city”. Some of the main reasons are the difficulties of employment and the social tensions in l’Hexagone.
Idioms make any language colourful and interesting, if not strange. When we use them in context, however, we don’t think about what they say literally, but non-native speakers hearing them for the first time will often find them mind-boggling or hilarious – or both. For instance…
French: Ca ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard
Literal translation: That doesn’t break three legs to a duck
Meaning: That’s nothing to write home about
French: Parler allemand comme une vache espagnole
Literal translation: To speak German like a Spanish cow
Meaning: To speak very poor or little German
French: Filer à l’anglaise
Literal translation: To sneak away the English way
Meaning: To take French leave
The incongruity of idioms can also be a source of inspiration for creativity, as this sculpture, Poule au couteau (the chicken with a knife) by metallic’art, testifies.
French: Avoir l’air d’une poule qui a trouvé un couteau
Literal translation: To look like a chicken that has found a knife
Meaning: To look puzzled