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?


  1. You know, now that you mention it, I think I may do the same thing...I will have to pay attention next time.

    Coming home tired, having McDonalds with the one you love, sounds like a slice of heaven to me.

    Cheers mate :)

  2. If my stories can help anyone else advance a bit faster, then my work is done.

    It was a very nice night, and even better to come home. However, I'll have to watch myself once I have access to Columbier on a daily basis.