Saturday, July 30, 2011

So who am I translating this for...?

Wednesday was absolutely hectic!  My mother-in-law was leaving for a trip in the morning, and then in the afternoon we had to go up to Rennes to submit the paperwork for our new apartment.  That meant we had to take showers and be out of the house by about 10:15 at the latest.  Now this doesn't sound like some feat for most people, but well, I have severe issues with having motivation some days. Seriously, nothing is ever as simple as it appears to be.

But well, we get my mother-in-law set to go, and we head out in the car to Rennes.  I took the iPod with me because even though we'd talk the whole way up, I like to have music.  So we talked about  nothing important and everything necessary at the same time.  We finally get to Rennes, and that's when we have to whip out the map to get the right way around.

We park the car and agree that after he's submitted the paperwork, I'll just meet him.  Of course, where is the logical question.  I can't drive, and I have no way to get around the city.  Plus we didn't know how long it was going to take.  So looking around for a second, I tell him I'll meet him in front of the bar down on the corner.  He says that he really doesn't want to have to go in, and I said, "no problem.  I'll check outside every now and again."  So he goes into the agency and I head back on what I think is the street, which it wasn't.  So whatever.  I find the right road and I'm on my merry way.

Now as I'm walking back, I start thinking about what I know of French bars and brasseries.  They're never terribly nice affairs.  Most always have this gritty feeling to me.  They may be in the most chic sections of town possible, but they always smell of cigarettes, coffee, and if the weather's warm enough, sweat.  So there I am thinking about all this and realizing that I really don't want to go in there myself now, but as I'm walking, I notice a place just across the road.  The sign above it even has my favorite word in French; patisserie!  So I walk across the street and they have this cute little patio area, so I have to go in!

I order a coffee and a croissant, grab a paper and sit down.  I am just reading through the articles, of course the paper is about a week old, but like I really read the paper enough to know otherwise, and am slowly drinking my coffee.  (This is one of the awesome things about places like this.  If you bought something, you've pretty much paid for your spot for a good 3 hours minimum.)

As I said, I'm reading through the articles, though as I progress I start to notice how slow I seem to be going.  I looked at my watch and realized that I had spent about 20 minutes reading the same three paragraphs in this article about the Tour de France. I mean, I've been here almost 2 years now.  This didn't make sense!

So, unfazed, I continued my search for the problem.  I went back to reading, a little more self-aware this time.  I read over the text again to see whats holding me up.  No, I know all the words.  The sentence structure isn't anymore complex than normal.  I keep trying to fire off reasons why I might be so slow at this.  As I'm re-reading the same three paragraphs for the third time, I suddenly figure out what the problem is.  It was something I had always done so I hadn't even thought about it until that very second.  I actually had to chuckle to myself when I came to the realization  that whenever I read something I would first read the French and then translate it into English before I comprehended what was actually on the page!

When I first came to France and could barely understand what anyone was saying, due to the fact that I had never really spoken much French before, in addition to being baffled by subjunctives, I used to read everything I could.  If there was a sign, I would try and think how to translate it into English.  I could tell you what every sign between Route Nationale 24 and Route Nationale 10 meant.  I figured if I could translate what everything said into English, then I'd make the connections and it would all come together.

I'll run you through a quick scenario.  Whenever we go to Rennes, there's a sign that says "Guer: Porte du Morbihan."  (Guer is a small city right as you enter into the department of Morbihan [56] in this case coming from Ile et Vilaine [35] where Rennes is located.)  If one were to translate it directly, it would simply be "Guer: door of Morbihan."  However, that doesn't flow as smoothly as it could in English.  So one starts to think about what "porte" really means in French.  Well, "porte" can mean door, but as I figured out when passing the signs on the Rocades and the Rennes soccer stadium, it can also mean gate.  So now we have a better understanding of it being a gate, but well, that's still a little strange.  In English, usually a gate doesn't take of, it tends to take to.  So we correct in our mind to "Guer: Gate to Morbihan."  We can do better than that though.

The meaning of gate in this case is a figurative gate, not an actual locking door that closes and makes entry impossible.  So in this figurative sense, it could be said that the city of Guer was welcoming one to the department.  Therefore, it would have to be something relating to a gate, but less imposing.  So what is there in English that would be representing a figurative boundary between two places, but in a welcoming sense?  Of course, a gateway!

I'm a sucker for a language mystery, so while I found all this absolutely intriguing and very much interesting, it starts to wear other people out, the more often you ask for translations.  You start to internalize this process, and it becomes second nature.  You don't even realize that you're turning "desormais" into henceforth/from now on/now as the situation calls for before you actually comprehend what you've read.

So I started reading the article without translating.  I still got all the sense of the article and I probably got through 3 or 4 more in the time I had spent on the first.  I was pretty impressed, but decided I should check if Mathieu was there.  He was, and not looking too happy, so I paid quick, and got out of there.  It turns out we needed more paperwork...  So we went back home, drove another hour back, gave them the paperwork, and then had some fun in Rennes.  We were so exhausted at the end we just came home and had Mc Donalds.

I've learned my lesson now, and I hope this serves as a cautionary tale.  The next time you're reading an article in a foreign language , check to see how you're going about it.  It may be time to ask yourself:  Who exactly are you translating for?

Monday, July 25, 2011

the sliding scale of connotation

I think one of the most fascinating things I've noticed in French, that exists in every language but one never notices in one they've spoken all there lives because that's just how it is, is the sliding scale of word strength.  For me, never was this more apparent than having a conversation with a friend of my mother-in-law's at the foot of the stairs.  We were talking about something, and she mentioned that it was "carrément bien."  The conversation continued, but while we were talking, the hamster got on his wheel.

I had thought back to other conversations I had previously with not only her among other friends, but also with other members of my family.  There seemed to be a class of words, all meaning various degrees of "really" that could be used almost interchangeably with a slight change in meaning.  I am sure there's a technical term for this among Francophone scholars, but I liken it to what I jokingly referred to with my brother once as the sliding scale of sexuality.  This, however; we'll call the sliding scale of connotation. 

So this is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you can think of others in French I would love to hear them, but this lies in the case of really.  Now in some ways, this really functions exactly the same as the English adverb.  Crazy as it might sound, you take two languages as inextricably intertwined as English and French, and wow!  --They're related!  Quel coincidence!  So the list that I came up with in my head was: "franchement," "carrément," "vraiment," and "vachement."  Each has the core idea of  truth, but each carries a slightly different tone of connotation.

When one sees the word "franche" in French, it tends to be most directly translated as "frank."  For a variety of reasons, I find this far more amusing than I have any right to.  First and foremost though, there is the element of historical assumption in all this.  As I said, this is assumption on my part, but the word "frank" is assumed to descend from the Old French word "franc" which in turn finds earlier roots in the Latin word "francus," meaning "free."  Logically, we can make the leap that one who is free would be able to say things in a frank manner.  Therefore, if something is described as "franchement" it can be inferred that the person is also able to speak candidly, openly, or any other variant that we have in English.

Another interesting side point: France itself or parts of France have been given variants on the nomenclature of "frank" and "franche."  Of course, that varies by country of origin.  For example, in most Germanic languages, the name of France often incorporates some variant on "free kingdom."  In German, it is known as "Frankreich," Dutch only varies the spelling and pronunciation slightly with "Frankrijk," and Norwegian about the same with "Frankrike."  Even languages like Welsh use some form of the original "franc" in its word for the country.  

Also, there is a region located in the east of France known as "Franche-Comté" which translates to "Free County."  It was originally a free country of Burgundy, and changed hands numerous times being taken by France first from the Burgundian Dukes, then taken by Austria, then Spain, and Finally returning to French control with the Treary of Nijmegen in 1678.  It is comprised of four provinces (Jura, Doubs, Haute-Saône, and Territoire de Belfort) and has two dialects of spoken French (Langue d'Oïl and Arpitan) both falling under the Franco-Provençal sub group of the larger Romance family.

Getting back to the bloody point (don't tempt me because I could easily blow a load over sub-languages in France.  I'm in freaking Brittany for pete's sake!) carrément, in my opinion, seems to be the most devoted to truth, I most often find myself translating it as bluntly.  However, one of my favorite ways to look at it is as "the unvarnished truth."  If something is described as "carrément," there are neither two schools of thought  nor two ways to slice it.

The root word "carré" is most often used when discussing anything square.  For example, in math when you want to say square root, it's simply said "carré."  When you're looking for an apartment, all the sizes will be described in metre carré instead of square feet.  Funny enough, a person can also be described as carré.  It's kind of like saying someone is big boned in English, but almost always if not always refers to a male.

A word I've had some difficulty differentiating is carreau.  Carreau also refers to square things, but in this case, they are more tangible.  Floor tiles would be described as carreaux, the plural form of carreau, as well as the suit of diamonds in a card game.  However, it should also be noted that if you live in France, the most dreaded use of carreaux will be in "faire les carreaux."  This literally means to wash the windows, but that's where the similarity stops.  If it were an Olympic sport, France would be a force to be reckoned with.  Americans break out the Windex and we're good, but the French are going old school with a squeegee.  Conveniently, you'll learn the all important phrase combination of "Putain, ça m'enerve!" while doing it and the even more important "faites chier!" if it rains the following week.

Vraiment, you would assume, is the most straightforward of the bunch, but such is not the case.  In general, vraiment implies a sense of truth or actuality.  The French word for true is baked right in there, after all.  However; it also most commonly works out to the intensifier really.  This form is the most pure sense of reality of the group.  I know it's strange to say one word implies the truth but has less to do with reality, but it's not always the case that truth and reality go hand in hand.

Now for my personal favorite of the bunch (purely for its level of inexplicability); vachement!  Translated literally, this means "cowlike."  I kid you not; "cowlike."  For those of you who have studied French, you're probably familiar with the phrase "Oh, la vache!"  This phrase implies that something is incredible.  (I am sure that others out there have probably seen the Monty Python Movie and the famous quote "Faites chier la vache."  I'll let you translate that gem on your own.  I have no idea why something would relate to a cow as wonderful, but then again, I'm only two-thirds French and pretty far removed at that. 

Now there are all sorts of intersecting ideas here, and I'm sure there are other words that come in here too.  As I said, these are the impressions that I have gotten.  I am by no means an actual scholar of French further than I am learning as I go.  Mais pour moi, je vais vachement bien, et j'espère qu'on parlerait très bientôt!  à plus tard!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

So wow...

Did something ever just get completely away from for a really long time?  So I'll say that's what happened here.  I'll try and be more faithful about posting.  I find it incredible that people actually joined after I stopped posting, so well, I'll try and be less disappointing in that respect.  A lot's happened, and I think a lot more will be happening. 

So I'm no longer in Loir-et-Cher.  We've moved since to Morbihan, and have been here for a while.  A lot's happened and I don't care to explain it all, although I have more post ideas now, and a much better grasp of how the French language works, but it's important to remember this is all for fun.  I'd love to know if any of your Francophones think this is an hilarious little blemish to your language.   Allez, devinez!

I should be moving to Rennes coming up here in a few months.  My partner has decided to return to medical school, as it's impossible for him to do what he really wants without it.  So we'll see how that all goes!  Expect more in the future, and maybe even some ridiculous attempts at more explanations of French things!  So we continue.  For those who are knew, bienvenue, or Degemer Mat, whichever you prefer!