Why I took my French husband’s last name

March being Women’s History Month and Women’s Day having just passed, I thought I’d respond to a question I’ve been asked a few times since my marriage.

If I didn’t live in New York City, epicenter of heathens, my decision to take my husband’s last name may well have gone unnoticed. As it is, my location and my female peer group – many of whom married and kept their last names – both rendered my choice more visible and my motivation less obvious.

The truth is, for a feminist who condemned the obstacles facing French men who want to take their wives’ last names, I didn’t hesitate for a second to go down the path of “tradition.” That isn’t to say I didn’t understand arguments against the practice; rather, my personal reasons for changing my name just seemed more compelling.

Normally, I'm all for disrupting gender roles though.

Normally, I’m all for disrupting gender roles though.


Reason #1: Not my circus, not my monkeys

Funnily enough, my so-called traditional choice had nothing to do with either my or Z’s cultural traditions. Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last names upon marriage, and – legally – French women always keep their maiden names (though they may use their husband’s last name socially, if they want to).

This is an important point, because it means I actually broke tradition with my choice. So while some feminists argue a name change signifies the surrender of personal identity — I felt the decision only magnified my individual agency.


Reason #2: The center *can* hold

However, my heritage did play a role in the decision-making process. I considered that, unlike many Chinese-Americans, I have a Chinese middle name aside from an English first name. This stroke of luck freed me to make my choice without completely erasing my heritage. Had that not been the case, the calculus would have been different.


Reason #3: A psychic vision from childhood

This is probably the creepiest and least comprehensible reason for my name change. As a fifth grader, I was given a school project to design a heraldic coat of arms reflecting my interests and ethnicity.

Unsurprisingly, I drew books and horses to represent my hobbies (yeah, I’m basically Tina Belcher).

Very surprisingly, I drew a Chinese flag and a French flag to represent my ethnicity.

The project was completed before I ever stepped foot inside a French class or even formally learned about the country. So imagine my shock when I unearthed it after Z and I had already been together a number of years….

*Cue X-Files music*


Reason #4: Say my name, say my name

In the Bible, there’s this riveting story about how one tribe tested if others were from the same tribe by forcing them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.”As a result, “shibboleth” came to mean any word used to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

When I was a kid, I wanted a totally easy, “American” name. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see my (now English-Chinese-French) name as a sort of shibboleth — one that only those closest to me would know how to pronounce.

(Sorry for the self-indulgence. I’m not even a special snowflake, just an average one).


Reason #5: Kick ass, take names

What can be more feminist than kicking ass and taking names? Literally taking names?!

I just take and take and take -- YAAAARGH!

I just take and take and take — YAAAARGH!


So maybe my decision-making process was a little more overwrought than I first suggested. Ultimately, though, people choose to take a spouse’s last name (or to hyphenate, or to create a new family name) for completely personal, inscrutable reasons. While I would encourage anyone approaching the altar to give it some thought, in my book, there is no single, “feminist” answer.



The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.


I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.


I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.


My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.


The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.


I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.

Battling the Blues with Transatlantic Laughter

Over the last few years, I’ve pretty much lived the idiom: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Bouncing between Greater Boston, New York, and Paris, I can attest that fond-growing is by far my most consistent cardio workout. After some initial elation at returning to New York at the end of a long Parisian winter and crappy bout of melancholia, I find myself – surprise! – occasionally longing again for the highlights of the Hexagon.

Though I’m happy to be where I am, the symptoms of withdrawal are familiar — crossing my eyes when scrolling through web feeds so I can’t see photos of France posted by expat bloggers, fingering necklaces with delicate Eiffel Tower charms in trendy accessories boutiques, perking up my ears at the lilt of the French language, whether overheard in the subway or the streets of New York … All this adopted-homesickness, coupled with having to maintain a long distance relationship, isn’t exactly fun.

Ironically, though, fun is the antidote to this well-known stage of reverse culture shock. Putting myself out there, overcoming social inertia, and facing life with humor I’ve found is the best way to cope.

reindeer skype

Battling the blues with transatlantic laughter.

With that in mind, I’m taking some time today to just laugh at the French language. Since reading Mallarmé isn’t helping me to feel any better about the distance, I’ll rant about some ways French – commonly thought of as the language of love – is downright silly instead.


1) French people sometimes speak like children in a conservative ’50s household.

If you took French in secondary school, you probably remember those textbooks with pictures of people in single-color sweaters, light wash jeans, and white sneakers. In reality, the French haven’t dressed this way for some twenty odd years, but the surprising thing is, they sometimes speak as if they were still living in this imaginary idyll.

Take the pseudo-expletive, “mince!” This is pretty much the equivalent of “darn” in American English (i.e. a very tame word), but it’s used with surprising frequency in everyday French. Besides its Leave it to Beaver propriety, what really makes it goofy is the fact that it also means “skinny,” “thin,” or “slim.” Thus, I always have to choke back a laugh whenever Z stubs his toe and cries out what sounds to me like “skinny!”

That same whiff of childishness surrounds another popular French exclamation: “nickel!” The name of this metal is uttered to mean “super!” “great!” or “awesome!” While I can clearly see the evolution of its meaning from the metal, to an adjective meaning “spotless” and “impeccable,” to a general expression of approval — by golly, gee whiz! I still can’t quite shake the idea that its usage would be better limited to those under the age of five.


2) They clean with serpillières.

Speaking of ’50s households, one of the few times I tried to do a thorough cleaning of our apartment in Paris, Z and I got into a fight over this ridiculous word.

French maid with knife

I could never be a French maid — housework makes me want to commit violence.

As I despairingly looked upon a dirty kitchen floor, I asked Z for a mop.

“What’s a mop?” he asked.

“You know, to wipe the floor.”

He returned with an old rag. “Here you go.”

I gaped at the sad shred of cloth he had handed me and – blanching at the prospect of wiping the floor on my hands and knees – snapped like a true diva, “I asked for a mop!”

“That is a mop,” he insisted heatedly. “It’s a serpillière. Here, I’ll prove it to you. It’s in the dictionary!”

It turns out the source of our confusion was a sloppy translation. In fact, the French rarely use mops. The closest tool they have is a broom handle with a single rag attached to the bottom, and the word serpillière can refer either to this broom-handle-with-rag (an approximation of a “mop”), OR simply to the rag itself (no broom handle necessary). A bit of linguistic laziness can thus mean the difference between getting one’s hands dirty and my preferred method of cleaning: just prodding at stuff with a very long stick.


3) They use Verlan, also known as French pig Latin.

I remember when, as a preteen, I first learned how to say things in pig Latin. My insufferability instantly shot up as I went around shouting, “ELLO-HAY! An-cay ou-yay understand-way e-may?!” Fortunately for all involved, I quickly tired of this little trick and reverted back to normal speech within a few hours.

Well, the French learned verlan, their version of pig Latin — and they just never reverted back. Verlan is so incorporated into the language now that no one bats an eye if you express gratitude with a “ci-mer” instead of “merci.” Even hardened criminals love this wordplay. You’ll find the phrase “f*ck les keufs” articulated in the graffiti of downtrodden neighborhoods, conveying disdainful threats to the police through a curious mishmash of English and verlan.

I love this bizarre transformation of the French language. I especially like to imagine the equivalent situation playing out in the US, perhaps on an episode of Cops. As burly police officers bear down on some hooligan, I like to picture the offender yelling out obscenities in pig Latin. “UCK-FAY OU-YAY!” he’d cry indignantly. “UUUUUCK-FAY OUUUUU-YAY!”


 4) Atypique (“atypical”) is used as a euphemism for ugly.

I was able to add this sardonic gem to my vocabulary while following the French reality show La Belle et ses Princes Presque Charmants (literally “The Beauty and Her Prince Almost-Charmings”). The show rips off an old American series called Average Joe, which pitted a team of fratty hunks against a team of “average Joes” (guys whose looks were somewhat less breathtaking) for the attentions of a conventionally hot chick. In the French version, I kept hearing members of the team of hunks referring to their less comely opponents as having physiques atypiques or “atypical physiques.” Confused, I turned to Z: “Don’t they mean physiques typiques, since their opponents are supposed to be average looking?”

“No,” explained Z, “They’re making fun of them for their bodies.”

“But their bodies are just average,” I argued. “I thought that was the whole point of the show.”

“Yeah, but atypique here means they’re not good looking,” shrugged Z.

I groaned. Of course. No way the contemporary French population would have missed an opportunity to invert their words.

physique atypique

Nothing atypical here, besides maybe a higher-than-average tolerance for public humiliation.


5)   There’s no translation for “rolling one’s eyes.”

Now that I’m putting together this list, I’m glad to be inside a country where I can express exasperation with a satisfying eyeroll. This tried and true outlet for my inner petulant child simply does not exist in France. It took me a while to pick up on this subtle difference; after all, the French are so great at complaining vehemently, the fact that I had never once seen nor read of someone rolling their eyes just didn’t enter my consciousness.

I finally wised up while reading some trashy, French internet forums. Unlike in American forums, when people got snarky with one another, there was no mention of eyerolling. Thinking I’d just missed something obvious, I casually asked Z how one would write “eyeroll” in French. When my query was met with radio silence, something clicked inside my mind.


“Well, we kinda do.”

Supposedly, there is an approximation of eyerolling in French, which is expressed through the phrase: lever les yeux au ciel (literally, “to raise one’s eyes to the sky”). While this gesture is closely related, it is most definitely not the same. For one, the French version contains an implicit appeal to a higher power, which is not necessarily true of the good ol’ eyeroll. Moreover – as I discovered after several minutes of rigorous, scientific personal experimentation – my American upbringing had made it almost impossible for me to simply raise my eyes, without giving them a quick tour of the backs of my eye sockets.

I guess that’s just how I roll.


These are some of my annoyances with the French tongue. Feel free to share yours!

Titles, names, nouns: a feminist issue

I was at the coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge when a professor bumped into me en route to destination caffeination. “Excuse me, mademoiselle,” he muttered mechanically — then paused. “Sorry, I meant to say madame” he chuckled, looking around at our other colleagues. “Mademoiselle has been removed from the French language. Did you know that?”

“Sure,” I grinned back. It was a brief exchange, but his joke had attempted to unite those of us in the room in the esprit gaulois, that ribald spirit the French inherited from their Gallic ancestors which scoffs at political correctness.

In this case, the offending instance of political correctness was the French government’s 2011 ban on the use of “Mademoiselle” in all official paperwork. The order was issued after complaints that it was sexist and outdated to make women identify themselves by their marital status, while not requiring the same of men. (When filling out forms, for example, women had to choose between the civil titles “Madam” and ”Mademoiselle” while men simply had to declare themselves a “Monsieur.”)

If you’re thinking that such a ban is stupid and/or pointless, you’d have plenty of French men and women for company. The common response here was derisive annoyance or defensive anger. The government is destroying the Gallic spirit! … There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted Latin culture that celebrates differences between the sexes … Surely these kinds of policies only suit repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures, with their vulgar notions of gender equality and cantankerous feminists.

Nursing my cup of morning brew, I analyzed my reaction to the professor’s remarks. To be honest, even after all this time abroad, I still feel a bit glamorous being called “Mademoiselle.” Admittedly, I was also flattered to be assumed assimilated enough to not be one of those feminists.

However, the fact of the matter is: I am one.

Facing Notre Dame Cathedral

My opinions aren’t chic, but I’m not turning my back on them.

At least I’m a stickler for language.

Of course “Mademoiselle” hasn’t been purged from the common lexicon, and I don’t  think it should be (this blog’s very name is evidence). Rest assured, it’s still a popular way to address young women. Nonetheless, I think the government made the right move in treating men and women as par in terms of paperwork.

Words are important. Identifiers – titles, as well as names and nouns – are crucial.

And what may seem like a trivial, isolated issue is actually endemic to much of French language and culture.


His wife's last name

An optical illusion: you can see it as a stub from the morning paper AND as an instance of sexism!

Sometimes I forget to bring a book on my commute and grab the day’s edition of Direct Matin, the free and somewhat trashy paper distributed around metro stations. Usually I scan the minimal news content before tittering over celebrity gossip and reports of odd happenings.

But instead of being amused by this odd tidbit, I found it deeply problematic. To summarize (italics are mine, and comments in parentheses are my reading between the lines):

A 37 year old man in the Rhône region of France is the first married man to take the last name of his wife. This has only been legal since the end of 2011. He ran into a lot of difficulty during the process, since many city halls refused him, pointing to problems with existing I.T. systems. Though he finally succeeded, his quest didn’t have anything to do with feminism (whew! no worries guys). He only wanted to change his last name because his Armenian family had adopted a Turkish last name to escape persecution (so, any other fellows wanting to try this newfangled take-your-lady’s-last-name-thing better have a solid excuse!)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that a man can take his wife’s last name. It’s not so great that this act is only legal as of last year; one has to jump through ridiculous hoops to achieve it; and it’s being reported on as some amusing novelty demanding a particular justification (besides feminism, of course, which is apparently not appropriate motivation).

Bride on the Seine River

A devoted husband takes up his wife’s dress… but definitely not her name.


Given the sexism around the issue of names, it may not come as a surprise that there’s also sexism around the issue of nouns. After all, the word noms in French refers to both “names” and “nouns.”  They’re essentially the same thing: identifying words.

Unlike in English, nouns in French are gendered. This means… well, not much typically. Chairs are female while toasters are male. Mustaches are female. Nail polish is male. For the most part, genders for nouns are totally random and serve zero purpose besides frustrating foreigners trying to master the language.

Eclair and macaron

These pretty pink pastries – an eclair and a macaron – are male. My digestive system didn’t mind though.

Where the issue gets dicey is when a noun refers to a profession; then, the genders are correlated with the sex of the people who commonly perform the job.

The word for nurse (infirmière) is female.

The word for ambassador (ambassadeur) is male. A news editor (rédacteur) is also male. So are professor (professeur) and engineer (ingénieur).

As both men and women have been entering into professions not traditionally performed by their sex, there has been some adaptation of the language. For nouns describing female-dominated professions, masculine forms were quickly introduced. It’s now completely common to refer to a male nurse as an infirmier.

But – ladies, wait for the catch! – there’s resistance to creating feminine equivalents of male-dominated jobs. This is partly a problem of historical language; for example, an ambassadrice already refers to the wife of an ambassador instead of a female ambassador. The bigger issue though is that even women suspect adopting feminized job titles would decrease their job status. That’s what happened with the word rédactrice, which came to mean the editor of a women’s magazine instead of a general news editor who happens to be female.*

Language, it seems, is not a woman, despite langue being feminine in French.


I don’t necessarily have final words to offer, or solutions to propose.

I’m not looking for anyone to say “Pardon my French.”

I just believe it’s worthwhile to dissect and dismantle potentially harmful sociolinguistic frameworks.

These aren’t the kinds of things you learn in a French classroom, but I think they’re discussions worth having. Don’t you?


*Beeching, Kate. “Women and Language.” Women in Contemporary France. Ed. Abigail Gregory and Ursula Tidd. Oxford : Berg, 2000.

How to stop being awkward: Move to France

The beauty of there being about 7000 languages in the world is that, sometimes, there simply is no equivalent for a word in another language. An example is the difficulty of translating “awkward” into French.

English-French dictionaries suggest maladroit, gauche, embarassant, or inconfortable as French equivalents, but – while “awkward” certainly encompasses  the notions of “clumsy,” “tactless,” “embarrassing,” and “uncomfortable” – it’s simultaneously broader and more incisive. “Awkward” bypasses situational discomfort and cuts to the cricket-chirping, blush-inducing, self-berating heart of the matter.

In my view, there is no other word that better describes the American adolescent experience.

Okay, fine: there is no other word that better describes my American adolescent experience.

EW high school

A triptych from my high school years: green corduroy pants, repressed goth outfit, and a bad dye job. Acne-ridden face has been censored for the love of all that is holy.

For years, I simply accepted my awkwardness as a given. I didn’t think that I would grow out of it, nor did I even try to fight it. On the checklist of awkwardness, I ticked off every box.

Unfashionable? Check.

Athletically impaired? Check.

Oblivious? Check.

Overeager and socially inept in general? Sure, why not. (Even at my college’s Goldman Sachs networking events, my first words upon meeting somebody would be, “Aren’t you excited for these hors d’œuvres?!”)

Magically, moving to Paris – previously as a student and now as a teaching assistant – seemed to cure my awkwardness. Not because I was suddenly sartorially gifted (though I did make a half-hearted effort) or because I acquired social grace. It was simply because the word “awkward” doesn’t exist in French.

This is an epiphany I have again and again. Whenever I think I’m being “awkward,” I try to see myself from a French person’s point of view. That’s when I realize that I literally cannot be “awkward.” Instead, I have to be described through proximate terms.


For example, I can be “sloppy” or “look like a tourist” (as when I first arrived in Paris over two years ago and was sporting bell bottoms and Keds, while all the Parisian women were flaunting skinny jeans and high-heeled boots).

Keds and capris -- I miss you!

I sacrificed canvas shoes and capris to assimilate into Parisian society. I still miss them sometimes.

I can be “really, really stupid” (as when my host mom asked me to keep the artisan soft cheese “in the top part of the refrigerator,” and I stuck it in the freezer).

I can be “unrefined” (like that time my host mom bought a box of [artisan, again, dang it!] chocolates for me to give my family as a gift, and I ate it in one night [then had to admit it the next day when she asked about the box, of course]).

Or “blundering” (exemplified by my efforts to cut roast at a French dinner party where I spent minutes sawing the plate with a knife; finally, Z cut it for me after another guest nudged him and raised their eyebrows in my direction).

Of course, it’s also possible to make a “faux pas” (as I did at a recent birthday soiree for Z’s sister-in-law, when his niece tried to guess my age and suggested the sister-in-law’s age of 41 — at which point, I unthinkingly gasped and expressed horror in front of everyone).

BUT, but, but… at least I’m not awkward. All these terms that can replace “awkward” are situational. They can describe how I act under a set of circumstances but they can’t describe my overarching personality.

This is a major victory for me. When I first realized this, I thought: I could go back to high school with this victory. Even college. Without my awkwardness, I wouldn’t be uncool. I could even be cool. I could even be popular.

And the astounding thing is, at the school where I teach, I kinda am.

This is a source of constant surprise.

When a male student acknowledged that he once worked as a model at the Abercrombie and Fitch on Fifth Avenue in New York, I let slip an admiring “WOW!” The class burst into giggles and “WOW”s echoed across the room, but it was the attractive young man – not me – that blushed.

When an English lesson was going particularly well, and I was delighted at how everyone was actually participating, a joyful, seemingly random “Oh my God!” escaped my lips. Again, the room echoed with “Oh my God!”s but the laughter was friendly, not cruel.

My overenthusiastic “Amazing!”s and “Awesome!”s and “COOL!”s elicit similar responses.

So, alright, I’m as awkward as I’ve ever been. But being a foreigner in France means you can get away with some things. Even being French means you can get away with some things.

Because I’m convinced that the secret to the French je ne sais quoi – that air of indescribable charm people ascribe to the French – is simply this: France is a country where awkwardness doesn’t exist.

That’s what I call Amazing!

Lost in translation? Not on my watch!

When I was eight years old, I wrote a letter to the author of one of my favorite children’s book series. The books were about a second grade girl who’s mischievous and kind of catty. I felt an instant kinship to this diminutive diva and went on to tear through dozens of novels in the series. Wasn’t it only natural to write the author and express my enthusiasm for her oeuvre?

Perhaps — but that’s not why I wrote the letter. I wrote to inform her of a chronological discrepancy introduced by one of her books (the protagonist’s birthday didn’t match the established timeline, ugh).  Even at that age, I knew this criticism had to be couched in diplomacy. Thus, I started the letter with a paragraph about how I was a huge fan (true enough), then went on with a gentle “but I noticed….”

As I grew older and learned about fun stuff like the subjunctive tense, writing etiquette, and typography, my fastidious drive to correct the world’s textual blunders only intensified. Meanwhile, diplomacy fell by the wayside. I was fully prepared to wage war with a red marker and disapproving glare.

Disclaimer: there was a cake - not a person - in front of me.

If you use “who” when you mean “whom,” I WILL cut you down. (Disclaimer: there was a cake – not a person – in front of me.)

This tendency didn’t help me make many friends, but it did help me make a little bit of money last year. When I was managing translation projects at a company in New York, one of my responsibilities was proofreading translated documents against the corresponding source documents.

Now, the only languages I can read and write are English and French, but – in addition to these languages – the documents I worked with could be in Greek, Danish, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, and pretty much every other written system of communication known to man. My goal was to make sure that translations into or out of all of these languages were accurate.

When I tell people this aspect of my former job, their brows furrow. How the heck did you do that? they’d ask. In response, I’d beg off by saying it was really hard to explain without specific examples.

Well, I finally photographed some specific examples at the Beijing airport a few months back (come on, what does everyone else do while waiting for a connecting flight?), which I’ll now use to elucidate the proofreading process.

Okay, it's a Corona hat.

Thinking caps are all the rage in Paris. I promise.


It was like a game.

When I received the translations, they had already been proofread at least once, if not twice, by a linguist (industry term for “translator” or “proofreader”) fluent in both the source and target languages. My job was to pretend to be a hypercritical client who didn’t necessarily speak either language but who could spot potential errors.

I would print the source document and put it alongside the translated document, then skim both line by line. If I spotted something that looked weird to me, I’d flag it and send it back to a linguist for review. Sometimes the flagged item would turn out to be completely fine, or just a feature of the language. Many times, it would be turn out to be an error which the linguist or I had to correct.

Errors could fall into any of the following categories:

  • missing or extra text / content
  • spacing
  • punctuation
  • formatting and alignment (bolding / italics / underlining / highlighting, font style and size, bullets, tables, graphs, logos, page layout, etc.)
  • mismatched numbers
  • inconsistent translation of identical source text
  • failure to use client-preferred terminology or reference text
  • singular versus plural errors
  • spelling and grammar errors (to the extent that you can decipher either language and its rules)

In the following examples of Chinese-to-English translations, I will ignore most spelling and grammar errors to better illustrate the kinds of errors you can catch if you do not know either the source or target language.


Example 1:


You’re here. You’re really here? Somebody’s still reading this?!

This one is pretty simple. Identical Chinese text is translated inconsistently on two different signs (“You’re here” vs. “You are here”). Also, the first sign switches between putting Chinese characters on top of Latin script and Latin script on top of Chinese characters. While that might be okay for a very brief translation like this sign, such inconsistency gets really confusing throughout longer documents (it’s also inconsistent with the style of the second sign). Finally, the Chinese character corresponding to the number “3” is present in the first sign but not at all in the second sign.


Example 2:


You’ll need a red marker.
And a blue one.
And a — aw, just bring the whole box.

Red circles: In the top two red circles, the Chinese uses a slash (/), while the English uses an ampersand (&). This would only be acceptable if the slash mark did not exist in the English language or if it meant something different from the Chinese slash mark, thus necessitating its replacement with an ampersand. Moreover, since there’s spaces before and after the slash in the Chinese text, I would question whether there should also be spaces before and after the conjoining punctuation in English. This issue reoccurs in the red circle at the bottom-right. This time, an ampersand appears between “jewellry” and “watch” with no corresponding punctuation in the Chinese text at all.

Pink circles: Note that in the pink circles, the sets of Chinese characters corresponding to the words “watch” and “jewellry” do not match (the only identical character is the last one). This is an instance of differing source text being translated the same way, which is suspicious. It could indicate that the translation is off, but it’s also possible that the source text says the same thing in different ways (either by using different terminology or by using Traditional Chinese in one instance and Simplified Chinese in another). Either way, this requires an explanation.

Yellow circle: When we look at the Chinese in the first pink circle, it seems that the last two characters correspond to the word “jewellry.” In the second pink circle, one of those characters appears again at the end. That indicates to me that – in the yellow circle – the word “jewellry” should appear after “watch” instead of before it. Otherwise, the ordering of “watch” and “jewellry” in the first pink circle is wrong.

Blue circles: Double whammy! Here we have two instances of translations from Chinese to English for the words indicating “bookstore.” Neither the Chinese characters nor the English translations are consistent with each other. Nice!

…Not really.

Crazy eyes!

Fortunately, a lot of people I worked with were halfway around the world, so I couldn’t subject them to this look of desperate fury.


In this last example, I’ll pretend to be flagging some items for a linguist to check, so I’ll just write a few words about my concern or question in each instance. (Usually, we worked in Microsoft Word so we could track changes and comment back and forth.) Afterwards, a linguist would return the document either justifying the flagged items or fixing them.

You will pay for this wifi with your soul

This dude wouldn’t be so happy if he could spot all the errors.

Green circles: Inconsistent spacing before and after colons. Please check throughout the doc.

Purple circles: Usage of quotation marks inconsistent. Possibly missing in the first instance and later instances use differing styles of quotation marks.

Pink circles: Shouldn’t technical acronyms “SSID” and “IE” be present in the English translations? Also, it looks like “SSID” got replaced with “WiFi” in the English — is that ideal?

Orange circles: Period after fourth Chinese list item, but no period after fourth English list item.

White circles: Numbering alignment issue.

Blue circle: Capitalization in “WIFI” is inconsistent with all other instances of “WiFi” throughout the doc.

(As in the other examples, these are just a subset of the errors one can spot in this document. Yes, there are others. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going into all of them.)


Anyway, the author of the children’s book series wrote me back.

She thanked me for my effusive praise and included a black and white photo of herself. Her signature was squiggled in one corner with a felt-tip marker. I’ve faithfully kept the letter to this day.

As for the error I pointed out? She said she was working on it.

In the end, that was all I’d expected. Just as I adored the author, I admired the hard working translators and proofreaders with whom I collaborated. It’s okay to be lost in translation (we all are occasionally) — as long as you try to find a way out.