If you speak more than one language, you may have noticed that the way you present yourself to others varies depending on which language you’re speaking.
For instance, I’m a confident speaker of my mother tongue (English). I consider myself articulate and, being a native New Yorker, there’s a certain boppity-bop-bop to the way I speak. When I recently asked a group of friends for a list of adjectives that best describe my personality, “direct” bubbled to the top, which is consistent with my speech style. I tend not to beat around the bush.
But when I asked my French friends to do the same, their list was surprisingly different. According to them, when I speak French I come across as “cheerful.” Hmm, how did “direct,” which I sometimes have to temper lest I inadvertently say something that rubs someone the wrong way, morph into “cheerful?” I like to think I’m fluent in French. But I make frequent mistakes, struggle occasionally to find the right word, and almost always laugh at my foibles. So there’s a certain amount of humility that plays into my forays in la francophonie. Hence, my cheerfulness.
Expressing your style in written French presents a whole new set of challenges. According to one of my former French professors, the French language has 30% fewer words than the English language. So what we anglophones might sum up in an adjective might be said in French with a verb phrase, for instance. And even when you can find an appropriate word-for-word translation, it often doesn’t sound like something a native French speaker would say or write. Oh la la.
A couple of years ago, a Parisian friend living in Nice came up with the idea to publish an anthology of short stories (nouvelles, in French, not courtes contes, which translates literally as “short stories” but is more accurately translated as the nonsensical “limited fairytales”). Each story would be a first-hand account of how a world-famous monument came to be. She gathered a group of writers from the countries where the monuments are located, and went to work assigning one monument to each of us. She found a French-speaking Egyptian to write about the Great Pyramids, a Parisian to write about the Eiffel Tower, etc.
But when it came time to write about the Statue of Liberty, she told me that another writer— who was only half-American— wanted to write it. So I told her how I had an unobstructed view of the statue from my home in Brooklyn Heights, NY. That’s all she needed to hear: I got the assignment (the other writer was assigned Big Ben), and she gave me the option to write it in either English or French. I chose English and produced a short story whose tone blended an appropriately woe-is-me attitude with some home-brewed NYC snark. As soon as she read what I had written, she asked me to write the French version. Zut alors!
Here are just a few of the challenges I faced:
- Research shows that French translations are about 15-20% longer than their original English text. So if you’re trying to match or fall below your English word count, good luck with that.
- There are three clearly defined levels of French: familiar, standard, and soutenu, or formal. In English, we have one. So when translating from English to French, you have to choose the appropriate level for the text and be consistent within it.
- French is rife with faux amis, or false friends. What might seem like an accurate translation could end up having a completely opposite meaning. For instance, if you feel “blessed” in English, let’s hope you’re not blessé in French because it means you’re injured.
- While there are myriad ways to say something in English, there may be just one way to say the same thing in French. And that one way might have more than one meaning. For example, French may be considered the “language of love” but the word for “love” (aimer) is the same as the word for “like.” Je t’aime means “I love you.” But if you want to say, “I like you,” you’d say je t’aime bien, where bien means “well.” So loving someone well means you like them. Go figure.
My favorite adventure in translation came at the end of my Statue of Liberty story, in which the last line made it clear that Lady Liberty may have been born in France, but she has become a dyed-in-the-wool, potty-mouthed New Yorker. Which presented two new challenges. First, French people seem to think that New Yorkers are elegant folk. The only thing plus chic than being Parisian is being New Yorkais. But in my experience, scratch the surface of anyone born and raised in the tri-state area, and you’ll find a hint of vulgarity beneath even the most elegant veneer. Second, after I toned down the vulgarity of my last sentence at my friend’s request, I had to find a decent translation for “No one messes with Lady Liberty.” (You can easily guess which verb I originally chose.) The problem was that there’s no obvious translation for “mess with.” So I asked some of my French friends for their ideas, and the result was an exercise in hilarity.
Here are some of the options we came up with, translated word-for-word from French:
- Whore, don’t touch Lady Liberty.
- Don’t joke around with Lady Liberty.
- If you look for Lady Liberty, you’ll find me.
In the end, we agreed to go with option 2, though I pushed hard for the infinitely more vulgar option 1 because it packs a punch that the other two don’t.
So there you have it. I may be direct in spoken English and cheerful in spoken French, but I lean toward vulgarity in written French. Merci mille fois to my friend Iveline de Normandie for teaching me these things about myself and for bringing our anthology of monument stories to life. If you want to read it, it’s available on Amazon in English (as The Wisdom of Monuments) and in French (as La Sagesse des Monuments). And if you do read it, please post a review on Amazon or send me comments because I love the feedback— especially if you want to propose an alternative translation for that last line. Just don’t be surprised if the style of your translation says more about you than you imagined!