I am learning to speak French. This has meant buying a lot of French language books, listening to French radio stations, speaking French when I can, writing in French occasionally (after all, I am a writer!), and other small things. One of those “small things” has been setting my iPhone language to French. It seemed like a great way to learn what the language and words MEAN, and how they’re actually used. Face it: I know what the buttons and commands are in ENGLISH, so the French buttons and commands will be equivalents, right? Not direct translations, but I know what they mean, because they’re in the same place onscreen and do the same things in French as they do in English.
Saisissez le code = enter password. Annuler = cancel. Envoye = send. Appareil photo = camera app. Etc.
So this morning I was looking at the Google Traduction app on my iPhone, and noticed the phrase…
> Appuyer pour saisir du texte
Now, because of where it was onscreen and what it DID, I knew what that phrase MEANT —tap this button and then enter the text you wish to translate— but since I knew that words and phrases don’t always translate literally and directly “by the book,” I was curious…
…I took out my favorite pocket English-French dictionary, and, word for word, went through the phrase and translated it…
In my fiction universe, my character Margo’s parents come from divergent backgrounds in Canada. Tom LeDoux is an Ontario hoops player who can’t speak French, et Francoise Trudeau, elle est de Quebec et ne parlais pas anglais. Right?
So (1) the grounding of their MARRIAGE is that they love each other and connect in spite of words getting in the way; (2) Margo and her brother John Paul have to serve as translators for their parents; and (3) Tom cannot seem to get his French down pat.
So there was a vignette I wrote in an early draft of my first novel, where Tom wants Fran to make him a raspberry milk shake, and so he looks in whatever French-English dictionary he falls back on and comes into the kitchen repeating the phrase to himself so he doesn’t forget it, and when Fran says “Pour quoi, Thomas? What?” he asks her to make him une laiteaux framboise saisie.
Laiteaux = milk. Framboise = raspberry. Saisie = shake. Raspberry milkshake. Right?
She snorts a laugh. “You want a milky raspberry seizure?!
“Non. Frappé, Thomas. Frappé.”
Meanwhile, one of my favorite books ever is Mark Twain’s dual language edition of “The Jumping Frog.” There are many editions and printings of this story, but this particular edition is, essentially, a tri-lingual translation. The complete title of the slim volume is The Jumping Frog: In English, Then In French, Then Clawed Back Into Civilized Language Once More By Patient And Unremunerated Toil.
In his introduction, Twain said that he heard that the French didn’t think he was “funny,” so he found a French translation of “The Jumping Frog” and re-translated it back into English. Of course, the re-translation back into English is a disaster, since Twain took the literal, dictionary translation that the French editor created and put it back into English by probably the same method (looking up the words in a bilingual dictionary). It’s probably one of the funniest books I ever read.
So I know that when I refer to my Robert or Larousse dictionary, they’re not going to tell me that “Appuyer pour saisir du texte” means “Press here to enter text”… the translation is going to be more like
> WHAT THE FUCK?! “Support for seize some words?” Huh?!
So an important lesson I’m learning as I speak and read and write French is that, just as in English, words and phrases often can’t be translated literally. The “book meaning” is seldom what you encounter in usage.
As a friend who’s coaching me in French told me, the definition of baisir is “to kiss,” but in common French usage, it can also mean “fuck.”
When I typed Appuyer pour saisir du texte into the text box in Google, it actually spat back Press to enter text, which, of course, was what my intuitive understanding told me. That was the point of setting my phone’s language to French: familiar phrases and words and commands would be in the same place, just in a different language.
I’m not sure what algorithms Google Translate uses, but so far, it seems to be spot-on. It seldom gives me the same “meaning” that I’d get by doing a word-for-word lookup in one of my language books.
What’s helping me learn the language is not just the stack of grammar books, although they’re a help. It’s been listening and reading and speaking. Attempting to communicate and to garner communication. Putting the French or Quebecoise jazz or classical radio station on the computer and listening to the cascade of words and discerning as much as I can. Even a small understanding can feel like a major victory. I was thrilled, a couple weeks ago, when I was listening to TSF Jazz and heard the DJ say “Neuf neuf” and realized WHY she was saying it. “Neuf neuf. Nine-nine. They’re at 99 FM. I GET THAT!”
My goal is to go to France for an extended period… not just a vacation, but maybe to housesit. Or maybe I should try London, an English-speaking city where France is accessible but I’m not immersed by daunting necessity.
Or maybe… I don’t know… maybe I should live someplace else, like someplace that is right across the border from a Francophone culture, like, ohh, I don’t know, say…VERMONT??
But I know that two things that will make me take off with this are being immersed in it, and being in a situation (like maybe a relationship) where, like Tom LeDoux, I am forced to use it and ask someone I love to make me a milky raspberry seizure occasionally.