Found(ering) in Translation

Eglise de Saint-Andéol, Parisot

We’ve just got home from a choral concert given in the Eglise de Saint-Andéol (above) at Parisot. The Chantier Voix choir from Limogne (Lot) interpreted a range of songs from negro spirituals to Russian Orthodox sacred music to Corsican polyphonic chants. Very good it was, too.

However, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, it is in the nature of churches to be cold and this was a church to the core. Unfortunately, the electricity in the church chose the coldest day of the year so far to go on the blink. Result: no heating. Thankfully, the choir kept it short and sweet and skipped the interval. We’ve got the woodburner going full blast and I’m now thawing out.  

However, this has nothing to do with the post I started to write earlier to which I will pass on without further ado.

Angela, a colleague on Writers Abroad, wrote a great blog post on that site recently, about the howlers that foreigners make in another language. She referred mainly to her Dutch students, since she is an EFL teacher. However, some of their gaffes recalled the painful moments we have experienced during our life in France – and even before.

If only we all spoke the same language, preferably English. However, the fact that we don’t produces some entertaining malentendus. Translating literally from one language to the other is always perilous, like the time I announced loudly at the end of a meal, “Je suis pleine”. Alas, this does not mean I am full up. It means drunk or pregnant.

A lot of French words look similar to each other but have very different definitions. Even the SF, who has lived in France longer than me, is not immune to the blunders this can generate. On one memorable occasion, we were invited to a dinner party where we were the only non-French. We discussed smoking and how it had declined. The SF turned to his neighbour, a rather imposing lady, and asked, “Vous êtes fumier?” There was a stunned silence. Realising what he had said, I snorted with laughter, whereupon the French also saw the funny side. Fumier means a heap of manure or a shit when applied to a person. It’s close enough to fumeur/euse (smoker) to confound even a veteran expat.

Then there are the hundreds of English and French words that look similar but mean quite different things – the so-called faux amis (false friends). For example, actuellement doesn’t mean ‘actually’ in the sense of ‘really’. It means ‘currently’. Similarly, officieux doesn’t mean ‘officious’; it means ‘unofficial’.  The list is endless.

Sometimes faux amis trip one up with entertaining results. A while ago I heard about an English woman who wanted to curry favour with her severe French mother-in-law. She declared that she liked French food because it didn’t contain préservatifs. Far from mollifying Madame, this made her even less agreeable, since préservatif is the word for condom. (An interesting aside: the French call condoms capotes anglaises while we call them ‘French letters’).

I find some reassurance in the fact that it works both ways. Our local doctor speaks English, which is helpful since he has a lot of British customers these days. Although I now speak French with him, in the early years we spoke English. Once, I asked him why I kept getting an annoying but not serious complaint. He replied, “Maybe you are sensible.” I appreciated the compliment but, of course, he meant ‘sensitive’, which is what sensible in French means.

On another occasion, a local French restaurant had obligingly translated the dishes on the menu into English. Among the delicacies on offer was ‘salad of lawyer and tomatoes’. Avocat, of course, is not only avocado but also lawyer/barrister. They had a 50% chance of choosing the right word in the dictionary… 

What amusing blunders have you made or heard about?

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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14 Responses to Found(ering) in Translation

  1. I decided to quit my part time job in France and gave my boss a moment of pure hilarity thanks to my letter of resignation, which is probably still pinned to his office wall. I declared “je vais terminer mon bulot au fin du mois” instead of “mon boulot”, bulot of course being snail, and boulot -job. It is generally my pronuntaion that falls foul, I know a vast number of words thanks to reading in french, but in my head they are always pronounced with english phonics rather than french, so many times I am gazed at qizzically by french people mid conversation!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Good one! I bet your boss had a good laugh. Even after 15 years I still have difficulty with French pronunciation and French people know I’m English as soon as I open my mouth. Round here, if you don’t add an ‘e’ at the end of every word, they don’t understand!

      Like

      • Lee I says:

        My French teacher (in California) who is from the area of Le Mans keeps trying to get rid of the little ‘e’ I pronounce at the end of words that I acquired from language class in Provence and more time on my own there (as opposed to tours) when I had to do the speaking to do the living.

        Like

      • nessafrance says:

        Someone told us a couple of years ago that we had acquired the SW regional accent. I take that as a compliment!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked the menu at a place in La Roche Bernard which offered shelf fish.
    And the local place whose noticed advised angophone clients that the bar was a ‘now smoking’ area.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I wonder how long the fish had been on the shelf?! And no doubt smokers disappointed elsewhere were flocking to the ‘now smoking’ bar. Great contributions – thanks for these!

      Like

      • I must learn either to type or to proof read.

        Like

      • nessafrance says:

        I actually didn’t notice them first time around – and I used to be a copy editor and proof reader in a former existence! It was only when I got your second comment that I had a more detailed look. But hey, ce n’est pas grave. We see what we want to see.

        Like

  3. Lee I says:

    I often think French menus with little English translations should run the copy by a native English speaker before publication. One tourist bureau-y webpage I read with all kinds of information about the country, its products, its people, referred to great crops of fuckseed. Huh? Oh, yeah. Rapeseed, or as we call it, canola oil. (Gee, what’s the French word for it?) THAT one should have been run by a native English speaker.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Good one. Rapeseed is ‘graine de colza’ in French and rapeseed oil is ‘huile de colza’. But you can understand why the mistake is made. I agree they should run it past a native English speaker. And it works the other way, too, of course. I remember watching a programme on British TV many years ago, which drew attention to the predicament facing manufacturers within the EU who wanted to market their products to other EU countries but had to change the names to avoid offending their potential customers. The one that sticks in my mind is the brand of Spanish potato chip called ‘Bum’.

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  4. Steph says:

    Salad of lawyers sounds rather nice! ‘Eventuellement’ is another one that confuses people up (‘possibly’ and not ‘eventually’). I’ve been known to muddle up ‘mouche’ (fly) and ‘mouchoir’ (hanky) and ‘échelle’ (ladder) and ‘écharpe’ (scarf) at crucial moments, but I’m slowly improving. At least, I hope I am!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      No doubt salad of lawyers would be rather expensive. Yes, good example, éventuellement is another faux ami that we Brits translate too literally. I still mix things up a lot but perhaps less than previously.

      Like

  5. The Statistic Freak says:

    It does not need to be a question of languages. Just the similarity of the words is enough. When I lived in Limoges in the 70’s I was invited to a garden party. The house had a most beautiful Clematis on the wall and I quite loudly congratulated the hostess on her magnificent clitoris. That was a conversation stopper, but you would be surprised to know how many invitations I had after that incident.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Oops, that was a boob that you could have made in English just as well as in French! I’d love to know what transpired at subsequent events – assuming, of course, that you accepted the invitations!

      Like

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