Pays de merde

Pity the humble translator whose increasingly challenging job it is to find the words for modern diplomatic language like ‘shithole countries’.

Having worked as a French-English translator in a former life, I can sympathize with those lost-in-translation moments. Often our job is not to literally replicate the words but to find terms that most people will understand to somehow capture the nuance of meaning. Not that the word ‘nuance’ can be readily associated with certain world leaders.

Translating Trump’s recent blunder, in which President Frog* used the unfortunate term to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries, the French media for the most part took the easy route with the already-coined phrase, pays de merde. An expression often used by the French themselves to describe France, it literally means ‘shit country’.

The proper meaning of ‘shithole’ was picked up by the excellent newspaper Courrier International as ‘trou à merde’. I learned all this from the Guardian, whose frankly hilarious piece details the translation challenges from around the world. Who knew there were countries where birds don’t lay eggs?

But nothing beats the Urban Dictionary, which has updated the definition of the term to its true meaning:

When my kids were little, they used to say: “C’est toi qui le dis, c’est toi qui l’es!”

I can’t think of a good equivalent in English but essentially: You said it, you’re it!

Out of the mouths of babes…

 

* Disclaimer: In carrying out in-depth research for this post, I discovered the Trump-frog chin meme; please note, however, that term ‘President Frog’ has nothing to do with France or the French. The author accepts no responsibility for any sensitive souls who have been offended by this post.

Faux amis

Anyone who has ever tried to speak another language will have had an encounter with les faux amis – those foreign words that appear to be all friendly and dressed in familiar clothes but turn out to be perfect strangers.

False friends are easy traps to fall into when you begin learning French. They offer a tempting short-cut to new vocabulary, although they rarely mean what you think they do. Ancien is not ancient, monnaie is only one type of money, and you must realize that réaliser means to achieve something. Achever may just finish you off.

At first I felt cheated: it was simply not fair that all the French words I thought I knew by osmosis were virtually useless. Not only was it a waste, I had to learn them all over again. And how unsporting of the French to change the meanings of their own words! It was as if they did it on purpose to confuse us foreigners.

Once I got past this rather childish fit of pique (itself another example, the French word pique meaning not temper but a cutting remark), I was able to get on with the business of learning to speak French — the real language and not some ideal in my head.

My first clue that the faux amis could also be my friends came one day when, in a moment of weakness, I began to cry. They were tears of pure self pity. From not understanding. From being misunderstood. From feeling like a fish out of water.

“Poor sweetie, you are very sensible,” my Frenchman said.

“Sensible?” I sniffed. “What’s sensible about crying?”

“You shouldn’t get upset so easily.”

So I learned that sensible means sensitive. It didn’t seem very sensible to be so sensitive but there it was. It was reassuring somehow to know that the false friends could strike in both languages. And it gave me a strategy for figuring out new vocabulary.

There was also that memorable occasion on which I informed my French mother-in-law that in my country, they put préservatifs dans le pain. Yes, that really happened. But no, if you need a condom don’t go looking for one in a loaf of bread.

This post is in response the WordPress Daily Prompt ‘jolly’. Jolly is a false friend of the French word, joli or jolie in the feminine, which means pretty. Sometimes the two meanings intersect but it is far from a rule. Take Angelina Jolie. She is surely pretty – beautiful even – but rarely appears to be very jolly.

With the holidays upon us, there is often a good amount of both in the air. There is nothing prettier than a fresh layer of snow and our spirits are high as we prepare to ring out the old. And a rose, that jolliest of blooms, is a rose and is still a rose in French. All dressed in her winter coat.

 

Cours de GPS

road signs, panneaux

The female voice that lives inside my GPS is called, improbably, Serena. Perhaps this female persona was the fantasy of the German engineers who designed my personal navigation app. Or maybe the marketing people thought the name would inspire a sense of serenity.

When I had to choose between Serena and Henry, her male flatmate, I went with dulcet-toned Serena. Of the two, she seemed slightly less commanding.

Did I mention I have issues with authority?

My first impression is that she sounds nothing like a Serena to me. Her snooty British accent makes her seem far too well-schooled to be doing this job. And, having taken a trip or two together, I fear she must agree.

Although we are in France, Serena speaks English. If I have the option, I always pick the language this is least likely to cause confusion, or misinterpretation, to my English ears. This is especially true when it comes to getting from point A to point B. I am, as confessed before, geographically and spatially challenged, a condition that only seems to get worse with age. But because we are in France, and French-speaking Switzerland, I do expect her to have a minimal grasp of the lingo.

The problem begins as soon as we hit the road.

“Prepare to bear right,” announces Serena imperiously. The road stretches ahead in a straight line.

“I think you mean go straight,” I suggest, trying to be polite.

“Beware!” says that lady.

“Beware of what?” I ask. There is no danger that I can see.

“At the roundabout, take first exit.”

“You mean turn right?” I ask, squinting at the screen propped on my dashboard. You are not technically allowed to use a GPS on your phone while driving in France. Just in case you might be cheating by texting or checking your Facebook status, they make any use of a phone in a car illegal.

Thankfully I no longer have to face the road conditions shown in the picture above, which used to be part of my daily commute. But getting around France can be confusing, so I take all the help I can get.

“In 200 metres, prepare to turn left.”

Okay, that much I get.

“Prepare to turn left in 100 metres, onto LARUEDELAMARTINIERE,” anounces Serena blithely.

Her French pronunciation is a curve ball that catches me unaware. It bears no connection to French as I know it. What street does she mean? I glare at my screen but cannot see any name resembling her French with an English accent.

The road curves and I miss the turn.

“Now turn right onto CHEMINDELACHARBONNIÈRE.”

“Chemin de la what? Where did you learn to speak French?”

“Now turn right.”

“Wrong! It says do not enter.”

“Beware!”

“Of what?”

There is silence. I glance at my screen and see a straight arrow. It seems that Serena has strategically repositioned.

“At the roundabout, take the third exit.”

“You mean go left?”

“Take the third exit and continue onto the D93.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Now prepare to bear right.”

“Oui Madame.”

“Now bear right.”

“My god you’re a nag.”

“Turn right on RUDE LACHAINE.”

“Rude is right!”

“In 300 metres, you will have reached your destination.”

“What? You are seriously confused!”

“You have reached La Rue de la Résistance.”

“Ray-sis-tance?” I say, mocking her accent. “Listen, lady, this is France. You need to work on your accent.”

“Beware!”

I look in my rear-view mirror and see a cop right behind me. Realizing he may be able to see me talking to my GPS, I put two hands on the wheel, activate the turn signal and proceed into the parking lot.

“Merci Serena!” I say, signing off. She says nothing, far too polite to say I told you so.

I have indeed reached my destination.

Navigon, the app I use. Not my destination!

Do you use a GPS?

 

Mort de rire

‘Mort de rire’, abbreviated as ‘mdr’ is the French equivalent of LOL. It means, quite literally, to die laughing.

French president Emmanuel Macron seemed ready to do just that when his rescue dog, Nemo, decided to leave his mark on the fireplace at the Elysée Palace this week during a working meeting.

It seems there’s a longstanding tradition of dogs in the French presidency. This video shows all of the pooches from Giscard to Macron (en français – sorry!)

Way before the internet started bringing us a daily dose of cute cats and funny animal memes, the dogs in our family provided moments of pure hilarity.

One of the funniest moments in my childhood was when the dog chewed my 85-year-old grandmother’s false teeth. She had left her set of choppers on the night table and one of our mutts chewed them out of shape. It was Christmas, and I remember how upset she was about not being able to properly enjoy her turkey dinner. Still, being a British-born woman of strong stuff, she laughed and said: “Must’ve had a bit of grub on ‘em.”

Flash forward to France in 1992 where husband and I decided to attend the only prenatal classes we could find in our area, then near Paris. Belle-mère raved to me about the wonders of the French method of ‘haptonomie’, in which both parents create a bond with the baby. Memory fails as to why our two Frenchies were with us when we went to the first class. We left them in the car (something I would normally never do, but it was a cool evening with no chance of them getting too hot).

We arrive in the room where the class is held, and join a dozen couples stretching out on yoga mats while the instructor talks to us about our emotions and the mysteries of bonding with our future child. Perhaps 10 minutes go by, during which I sense that husband is getting increasingly antsy. This is not his thing. Nor, to be honest, is it mine.

Suddenly, the peace of the session is disrupted by a loud honking of a car horn outside. Not one blast but several, long and insistent. Husband looks at me and whispers: “I think the dogs have had enough.” That was it. I was in stitches. Every time that horn honked I imagined our Frenchies impatiently leaning on the horn. We gathered our things and crept away.

Morts de rire.

Laughing out loud.

What’s your funniest memory of a pet?

 

Outre-Manche

Outre-manche

We are just back from a few days outre-Manche and I thought I’d share a few impressions of England as seen by a Frenchified anglo.

We heard so much French spoken on the streets at first we thought we were still in Paris. I had read of London being France’s 6th largest city, but it still came as a surprise.

We had booked a small hotel in South Kensington, which I later learned is home to the Lycée Français and an area known as ‘Little Paris’. It was election Sunday, and in the afternoon there was a long queue of voters on the street. Can you tell these people are French? I got very good at sussing them out before they said a word.

Lycée Français

In the bar where we went to toast Macron’s sweep to victory the waitress was also – quelle surprise! – French. Like most French people we met, she was relieved to have escaped an extreme-right government but a bit concerned about being sold to the highest bidder by a former banker.

There was no restaurant in the hotel so we went out for sustenance in the morning – and found ourselves enjoying continental breakfast at the French bakery ‘Paul’. (We made the mistake of a full English one morning at the local pub which part of the ‘Fullers’ chain and it was truly awful – powdered eggs!).

I love London, so our few days there were a treat. Thanks to Osyth (of the excellent blog Half-Baked in Paradise) for suggesting the tour of Spencer House – it was a fascinating glimpse inside a privately owned palace.

Still, I was surprised at how scary the streets were. Not because of terrorists or muggers, but rather because of the lack of clear rules for pedestrians. First of all, there is the issue of the side (left, wrong or otherwise). No matter how many times I crossed the road, I could never be sure which direction the traffic was coming from, so found myself like a terrified extraterrestrial, head wildly turning in all directions before placing a tentative foot on the street. While some areas were marked, others had no indication at all and it was unclear if we had any right of passage.

It seemed that there were signs and ramps for the disabled everywhere, but few or no signs for pedestrians. Not that the disabled don’t deserve the help, but surely we don’t want everyone to end up in a wheelchair?

Wheelchair

I was not exactly inspired by confidence when crossing this bridge.

We left London for the countryside near Nottingham, where we visited our daughter the future veterinarian for a few days. Everywhere we went, I was struck by how explicit the signs were.

Were you raised in a barn?

I’m not sure the fine will deter many.

Signs like these are worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

And in case you’re looking for the bins by the church…

God save the Queen!

Have you seen any good signs lately?