Tag Archives: lost in translation

L’école vs. school

For class today, I gave this presentation on a few obvious differences between American and French schools. Click the link if you’d like to follow the slides as I tell you the story of how it went.

Slide 1:
Me: This is the school I attended when I was your age.
Students: It’s so big!

Slide 2:
Me: Most American children can’t walk to school, so we ride special school buses that look like this. [Expects another “It’s so big” reaction.]
Student, accustomed to public buses: Do you need a bus pass to get on?

Slide 3:
As I recited the Pledge of Allegiance for my students, it occurred to me how utterly creepy it is. In high school, I got all up in arms about the unnecessary Red Scare era addition of the words “under God.” Yesterday was the first time I realized the sheer futile irony of adding the words “under God,” because really, the whole ritual demands the blind obedience of every Communist regime.

In France, there is an ongoing debate over whether their national anthem is too violent to teach to children. No joke: I had to learn it for French II, but I’ve met young adults in France who don’t know it, which I find strange for a nation so obsessed with its patrimony.

I challenge you to find a single American who can’t recite “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”—in their sleep, even! It’s terrifyingly nationalist!

Slide 4:
Unfortunate discussion of why Americans don’t start school at age 3, as French kids do. The French have us beat, hands down, where preschool is concerned.

Slide 5:
Me: In the U.S., you would have to go to school on Wednesdays!
To which I think: Wow, these kids are exactly their parents, making a huge stink over working extra hours. How very French they already are!

Slide 6:
Me: In the U.S., you only get a 30-minute break for lunch.
Class: QUOI?!
Me: 30 minutes.
Class: QUOI?!
Official teacher: Yes, class. You have the morning part of the day. Then you have 30 minutes to eat lunch. Then you have the afternoon part of the day.
Class: Ce n’est pas possible! Il faut plus de 30 minutes pour manger!
Me: No, you really don’t need an hour and 45 minutes to eat like you have here. And the cool part is, if you only take 30 minutes, you get to leave school at 3:30 in the afternoon!
Class: Ohhh! More TV time!

I’m not kidding about this. My students could not comprehend the concept of a short lunch break.

Slide 7:
My students think American kids are soooo lucky because they “get” to eat pizza and burgers almost every day. Kids will be kids.

Slide 8:
Class: Why do you study English? Don’t you already speak it?
Me: Why do you study French?

Slide 10:
My students were blown away by the idea that grades could be a percentage instead of an arbitrary 1-20.

And then I tried to teach them a rap from Sesame Street. They don’t have Sesame Street, so they don’t know that it would be super un-cool of them to like it if there were in America.

I’m off my next adventure tomorrow. Stay tuned for updates from Vienna!


Si on va au ciné?

Nearly half of the movies that play in French cinemas at any given time are in English. Sometimes they’re given French titles, which may or may not make sense. Sometimes they’re released with their original English titles. Another popular option, however, is to give the film a new English title. It’s especially amusing when I can’t figure out what the logic behind the re-naming process is.

For example:

It was explained to me that French people wouldn't understand the innuendo of the title "No Strings Attached," but the subtitle "Friendship has benefits" remains unchanged. In this case, I think they changed the name because of the unfortunate market assumption that French people won't go a movie unless there's a 100% chance of sex.

"Mean Girls" was retitled "Lolita Malgré Moi" ("Lolita Despite Me"). The new title is (a) nonsensical and (b) unnecessary. Everyone in France could figure out what "Mean Girls" means.

I found this phenomenon funny until I realized —uh DOY eee—that we do exactly the same thing in America. It can get confusing when you’re trying to find trailers to share with your friends on your online sounding board.

That brings me to the point of my post: to share with you the two movies I’ve seen this week. They were both fantastic, albeit for different reasons; they both have imminent U.S. release dates; they both have great labor politics; and best of all, they both feature strong female leads bringing men around to their cause.

The French title of the first one is Les Femmes du 6ème Étage”—”The Women on the Sixth Floor”—but it’s being released in the U.S. under the title Service Entrance.

I had a surprisingly hard time finding the second one online, because the English title is Made in Dagenham but the French release English title is We Want Sex Equality (again with the 100% chance of sex!)

[Correction: According to IMDB, this one was released in the U.S. last November. Look for it on DVD.]
My point is: run, don’t walk, to see both of them.

Hey you, miss ME.

There’s a hefty handful of verbs that simply don’t work the same way in French as they do in English.  One of them is to miss, in the sense of “I miss you;” I pine for you; I think fondly of you, and wish you were geographically convenient to me; my feelings for you are akin to dieting woman’s feelings for cake.

To say “I miss you” in English is pretty straightforward. I am doing the thoughtful action of missing you. You are entirely passive. You can return the sentiment if you wish, but it doesn’t change anything on my end.

In French, it’s not so straightforward. “I miss you” translates to French as “Tu me manques.” In French, tu (you) are doing the action: you me miss, you me are missing, you are missing to me. “You me miss” is, of course, far too literal of a translation. Really, it means plain old “I miss you.”

Nonetheless, I’ve always found it awkward to express this sentiment in French. As in English, the verb miss also has the sense of failing something: miss class, miss a target, miss the bus, etc. Thus, when I say “tu me manques,” I feel as if I’m either (a) commanding you to pine for me, or (b) accusing you of actively failing me in your absence. It doesn’t just express longing; it lays a guilt trip.

When I lost patience with Angers this week, though, I suddenly realized how appropriate the French construction of that sentence is. It’s not that I miss America—America is failing me by not being here in France!

Ah, yez, go, go.

I just got lucky. By which I mean:

As I biked home from teaching this morning, I noticed several cops gathered around a motorcyclist I presume they had pulled over. One can’t help but rubberneck a bit; there’s schadenfreude in watching someone else get a ticket. That is, until you realize a cop is hailing you, too.

He gestured to his head, so I thought he was complimenting me on being the one young person in France who wears a helmet. So, like a dope, I smiled at him. He said something that I heard as “man on the ground,” so I said, “Pardon?”

As it turns out, I was being reprimanded for running a stop sign on my bike. The cop said, “[somethingsomethingsomething hon hon hon] c’est un STOP.”

“Oh?” I said, eyes wide, making my best Feel Sorry for a Foreigner face. “C’est un stop?

“Ah, bon. Yez,” he said and waved his wrist to be rid of me. “Go, go, go.”

I’m lucky I didn’t get a ticket and I have the French work ethic (slash frequent lack thereof) to thank. For once, it was really nice for me that someone couldn’t be bothered to repeat himself.

A new kind of finger sandwich

Want to know something weird about the French language? It does not have a word for knuckle!

The real problem, other than having to use too many words to describe that part of your body, is that you can’t threaten to give someone a knuckle sandwich. “Finger sandwich” just doesn’t have the right ring. No pun intended.

Oh, incidentally…

I have another song translation to share.

In two months, I’ve only craved one thing I can’t find here: hoppy, bitter, American ale. In France it’s all yeasty Belgians, and I’m sick of the banana aftertaste that yeasty beers have.


Ma bière goût bananes! B-A-N-A-N-E-S!
Translation: My beer tastes bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

Chantons ensemble!

[Author’s note: As I was working on my post about Paris, I allowed myself to get distracted with something I’ve been wanting to post for weeks.]

My dear friend Rosie and I made up a great new hobby. We were inspired by Britney Spears’ guest appearance on Glee, which got her old songs stuck irreparably in our heads. As we cycled into town from our dorm wasteland, we began to translate nonsensical pop songs into French.

If you have ever endeavored to translate songs, you know that there’s a lot to consider: your translation has to fit the music without losing the integrity of the artist’s message. (I think we all know what a shame it would be to obscure Britney’s artistic vision.) I think Rosie and I really have a knack for it. With a little practice, we could be professionals.

So today, dear readers, I thought you might get a kick out of our translations. If you can’t read French, no worries—the best part is that I’ve re-translated our work back into English, just for kicks.

Britney Spears en français (Bretagne le Spears?)
Translations © EJ and Rosie

“Slave 4 U”

Original: I’m a slaaaaave for you
Translation: Je suis toooooon esclave
Re-translation: I am yoooour slave

“Drive Me Crazy”

Original: You drive me crazy / I just can’t speak / I’m so excited / I’m in too deep
Translation: Tu me rends folle / Je ne parle pas / Si passionante / Que j’n parle pas
Re-translation: You make me crazy / I do not speak / So passionate / That I don’t speak

“Oops (I Did It Again)”

Original: Oops / I did it again / I played with your heart / Got lost in the game/
Oh baby, baby / Oops / You think I’m in love / That I’m sent from aboooooove/
I’m not that innocent!
Translation: Hup / Je l’ai fait encore / J’ai brisé ton coeur / Perdue dans un jeux /
O bébé, bébé / Hup / Tu me trouves amoureuse / Envoyé par en hauuuuut /
Je ne suis pas si innocente!

Re-translation: Hup! / I did that again / I broke your heart / Lost in a game/
Oh baby, baby / Hup! / You find me enamored / Sent from aboooove /
I’m not so innocent!

I’m still tweaking a few other translations on my own, so I’ll probably post more some other day, but for now, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to present to you my pièce de résistance, brought to you not by Britney but by HRH Lady Gaga (La Dame Gaga?)

“Bad Romance”

Original: Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah / Roma, roma, ma / Gaga, ooh, la, la / Want your bad romance
Translation: La, la, ooh là là / Hee, hee, hon, hon, hon / Gaga, ooh là là / Romance française
Re-translation: I think this one speaks for itself.