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Posts Tagged ‘French language’

Cuentos de Averoigne: Todos los Cuentos de Averoigne de Clark Ashton Smith, traducción de Enric Navarro (Pickman’s Press 2019)

Evelyn Waugh and Clark Ashton Smith wrote some of the best English prose of the twentieth century. But could either of these writers actually be better in translation than in English? Theoretically, yes, of course they could be. Somewhere in Borges’ Library of Babel there are translations of Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall (1928) that are subtler and funnier than the original, and translations of Smith’s story “The Dark Eidolon” that are stranger and more lapidary than the original.

There are two main ways for such Babelean translations to be better than the original. It could be because they’re better as literature or because the new language is better suited than English for conveying Wauvian satire or Smithean strangeness. But that second way – a better language – is less likely in Waugh’s case, because Waugh set his work almost exclusively among speakers of contemporary English in the real world. His novella Helena (1950), set in the fourth-century Roman empire, is the big exception and also the big failure (though not in Waugh’s own eyes: he regarded it as his best book). Modern English is exactly right for Waugh’s world because Waugh’s world was the modern English-speaking world.

Clark Ashton Smith, on the other hand, set his work almost as exclusively outside the real world, in fantastic worlds of the far future and distant past where English was replaced by exotic languages speaking of exotic things. And so, as I describe in my essay “Wizard with Words”, Smith’s English had to depart from the everyday, using borrowings from Latin, Greek and French to conjure the medieval ambience of magic, mystery and supernatural intervention that is so important in fantasy. And it seems obvious that Smith’s tales of Averoigne, set in the past centuries of an invented French province, might read even better in French if the translator has sufficient literary skill.

And perhaps they do read better in French. My French isn’t good enough to tell. Nor is my Spanish when it comes to Cuentos de Averoigne, the translation under review here. But my Spanish was good enough for me to enjoy the stories thoroughly, to recognize the skill of the translator, and to wonder whether, in fact, perfectly bilingual readers would tend to find the stories better in Spanish. For one thing, Spanish has retained more of the right cultural flavour than English has. One big example: Spanish still naturally makes the distinction between the formal and intimate second persons that English once made with “you” and “thou”. And so you could say that something is gained in translation when Smith’s English is turned into Spanish. For example, this is how Moriamis the Enchantress addresses Brother Ambrose in English when she first meets him in “The Holiness of Azéderac”:

The woman stared at Ambrose, with open amazement and pity. Her brownish-yellow eyes were bright and clear as a mellowed wine.

“Poor little one,” she said. “I fear that your dreadful experiences have served to unsettle you. It was fortunate that I came along when I did, and decided to intervene. I seldom interfere with the Druids and their sacrifices; but I saw you sitting on their altar a little while agone, and was struck by your youth and comeliness.”

And this is how she addresses him at the end of the story, after they have fallen in love:

Ambrose told her of the singular mishap that had attended his journey in time.

Moriamis nodded gravely. “The green philtre was more potent than I had supposed,” she remarked. “It is fortunate, though, that the red philtre was equivalently strong, and could bring you back to me through all those added years. You will have to remain with me now, for I possessed only the two vials. I hope you are not sorry.”

Ambrose proceeded to prove, in a somewhat unmonastic manner, that her hope was fully justified.

It’s “you” all through in English. But not in Spanish. Here’s their first meeting:

La mujer contempló al clérigo sin ocultar su sorpresa y compasión. Los ojos le brillaban como un vino suave y resplandeciente.

–Pobrecito mío –dijo–. Me temo que vuestras recientes y horribles peripecias os han trastornado un poco. Por fortuna me hallaba cerca y fue acertada mi decisión de intervenir. No suelo inmiscuirme en los asuntos de los druidas y sus sacrificios; ahora bien, cuando os vi sentado sobre su altar, me sorprendieron vuestra juventud y candidez. (La Santidad de Azéderac)

Moriamis uses the formal vuestras, os, vuestra. Now here’s their re-union at the end of the story:

Ambrose le narró el singular episodio de su viaje por el tiempo.

Moriamis asintió gravemente.

–La poción verde era más potente de lo que había calculado –comentó–. Por fortuna, el líquido rojo tenía la misma concentración, pero a la inversa, y has podido regresar junto a mí desde esos años de más. Tu única opción es quedarte conmigo, sólo tenía esos dos frascos. Espero que no te importe.

Ambrose le demostró, de modo más bien poco monacal, que no se equivocaba.

As you can see, the formal has become the intimate. For example, the formal vuestra juventud y candidez – “your youth and comeliness” – of their first meeting is replaced by the intimate tu única opción – “thy only choice” – at the later re-union. In French, Moriamis and Ambrose take the same lexical step from formality to intimacy. And so Spanish carries the reader closer to what French-speaking Averoigne would really have been like. Or perhaps you could say that French and Spanish supply something that modern English lacks and that all speakers of modern English are deprived of.

And so Smith’s Tales of Averoigne gain something in translation when they become Contes d’Averoigne, in French, or Cuentos de Averoigne, in Spanish. But sometimes they may gain more in Spanish than in French, because Spanish has retained more of something than French: the ability to compress several ideas into a single word. These are the closing lines of “The End of the Story” in English:

Soon I shall return, to visit again the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes, and redescend into the vaults below the triangular flagstone. But, in spite of the nearness of Perigon to Faussesflammes, in spite of my esteem for the abbot, my gratitude for his hospitality and my admiration for his incomparable library, I shall not care to revisit my friend Hilaire.

English expresses the first person future with three words: “I shall return” and so on. Spanish expresses the first person future in a single word:

No tardaré en visitar de nuevo las ruinas del castillo de Faussesflammes; volveré a bajar a las criptas bajo la losa triangular. Pero, pese a la proximidad de Perigon, pese a mi estima por el abad Hilaire, mi gratitud por dejarme consultar su inigualable biblioteca, no pensaré en volver a visitarlo.

No tardaré means “I shall not delay”; volveré means “I shall turn”; no pensaré means “I shall not think”. There is no first-person pronoun, because none is needed: the first person is explicitly marked in the verb. From an English- or French-speaker’s point of view, there’s something strange about the conciseness and precision of Spanish, which better suit the strangeness of Smith’s imagination and his desire to lift us out of the everyday and transport us elsewhere – or elsewhither. And there’s a stronger strangeness in Spanish because of its many borrowings from Arabic. Spanish is a language forged on a frontier between east and west, where culture and conflict have shifted and swirled.

All these things – and more – make Spanish a good language to read Clark Ashton Smith in. But perhaps Spanish would be even better suited to Smith’s Tales of Zothique, set in the final days of Earth under a swollen and scorching sun. You understand Zothique better when you’ve experienced for yourself the heat and light of California, where Smith was born and spent the whole of his life. And California – the “hot furnace” – was founded by Spaniards. But if Spanish might be best for the Tales of Zothique, that doesn’t make it any less good for these Tales of Averoigne. I enjoyed Cuentos de Averoigne a lot, and perhaps more so because I don’t read Spanish fluently. I stumble and crawl by comparison with my reading in English.

When you have to concentrate on what you’re reading, the ideas and images bloom in your head with brighter colours and sweeter perfumes – or stronger stenches, as the case may be. You can find both perfumes and stenches in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, a wizard with words who deserves to be far better known but perhaps is too skilful and subtle a writer to become so. This book proves that his skill and subtlety can survive in translation, and also proves that translation can even overturn the central theme of one of Smith’s greatest stories, “The Last Incantation”. In that story, not set in Averoigne or Zothique, the ancient and mighty wizard Malygris discovers that he can’t re-conjure a lost love and see the world again through the eyes of youth.

But the word-magic of this translation allowed me to read Clark Ashton Smith again with the eyes of youth. When I first read “The Colossus of Ylourgne” in English back in the 1980s, I marvelled at the grandeur and grotesqueness of his imagination:

Gaspard had seen certain of the experiments and evocations of Nathaire, and was all too familiar with the appurtenances of the dark arts. Within certain limits, he was not squeamish; nor was it likely that he would have been terrified overmuch by the shadowy, uncouth shapes of demons who toiled in the pit below him side by side with the blackclad pupils of the sorcerer. But a cold horror clutched his heart when he saw the incredible, enormous thing that occupied the central floor: the colossal human skeleton a hundred feet in length, stretching for more than the extent of the old castle hall; the skeleton whose bony right foot the group of men and devils, to all appearance, were busily clothing with human flesh!

But how could I read that story for the first time again? I couldn’t. At least, I couldn’t in English. But I could in Spanish, and I could marvel again at Smith’s grandeur and grotesqueness:

Como discípulo de Nathaire, Gaspard había visto numerosos rituales y sortilegios, además de estar familiarizado con la nigromancia. Hasta cierto límite, no era escrupuloso ni se echaba a correr porque hubiese visto sombras, figuras de demonios y otras criaturas deambulando por el suelo o surcando el aire de la estancia. Pero un gélido horror le paralizó el corazón cuando reparó en aquella cosa increíble, descomunal, que ocupaba el centro de la planta: un colosal esqueleto humano de más de treinta metros cuyo tamaño superaba el de la planta del viejo vestíbulo. Y hombres y demonios, arremolinados en torno al pie derecho, ¡sin lugar a dudas, lo estaban revistiendo con carne humana!

Clark Ashton Smith is a hidden treasure, an epicure’s delight, and it’s good that Spanish-speaking epicures can now discover more of his greatness in the pages of this book. The translator Enric Navarro and the publisher Pickman’s Press are to be congratulated on this act of homage to a giant – or should that be colossus? – of fantastic literature.

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Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

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Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

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Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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