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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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 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.

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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.

“WAIT A MINUTE. YOU GUYS DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES!” I shouted accusingly.

“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.

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

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.

HURRAY!

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.

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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.

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Example 1:

Ugh

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.

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Example 2:

Uugh

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.

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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.)

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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.