What I’ve Learned In French Class

I had the speaking portion of my second year French final yesterday and it went…okay? Maybe a horror story, maybe not–I haven’t seen my grade yet. Let’s just say that I talk fast when I’m nervous.

Anyway, taking French for the last two years has changed me as a reader and a writer. Having to learn a new language and pay attention to the way they string words together really made me stop and look at English and its own mechanics. You don’t appreciate English’s pronouns until you’ve learned French pronouns. You don’t realize how strange some of our expressions are until you have to learn ones from a different culture. You don’t realize how evil the cross-over between languages is until you get a vocabulary sheet with “passer un examen” on it, which means “to take a test”–not to pass one. And then as you struggle through the “si clause” on your homework, you take a moment to think about the French students learning English and trying to figure out how to write “she had been having” or trying to understand why it’s not gooses, it’s geese.

Not amazingly original thoughts, sure. But I have a lot of down-time in French class, so these are the thoughts I have.

And then in English class, we’re reading Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the original French. I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing because I’m not reading it in French. And then I’m wondering what the books I read that were written in English would be like to read if they were translated into say…French.

See? We have a theme going here.

The written word is one of the most important pillars of modern society–regardless of language or culture. And translation has to be a part of the modern global culture. But something will always be lost when the words change–right?

Before I go any farther, I’d like to make it clear that I’m a white So-Cal girl whose knowledge of other languages is entirely encompassed by my two years of high school French. I’ve never read anything more than basic poems and children’s books in other languages. So sorry if I step on toes, but this is an idea that has been rattling around in my head for a while and I’ve decided to turn it into a blog post.

Disclaimer, over. Back to the idea that the phrase “lost in translation” does not just apply to miscommunications in romance novels. Especially in the modern age of technology lingo and contemporary slang, I wonder how a translator would transfer these from language to language. Some of my favorite scenes from contemporary books are made that much better because of their modern and familiar “teenage” diction. (The Girl Con scene in Beauty Queens by Libba Bray jumps into my mind, for one.) The rhythm of the banter in dialogue scenes, the way that the use of certain words just makes scenes funnier because of their connotations, those phrases that are so cliche that you just have to use them–how do you translate that when it relies so heavily on the language it was first written in? My biggest worry–when I take time to worry about the books I love being translated–is that something could be irrevocably lost from these books when the unique linguistic diction is translated.

I mean, what is the French version of the Valley Girl “OMG, so like…”? And when French readers read that phrase, do they immediately read it in a high-pitched ditzy voice? These are the questions that I need answers to.

Google Translate is famously bad. And I’ve learned long ago that word-for-word translations are mythic objects, like unicorns. (Did anyone else ever do the thing as a kid where you would look at warning labels that were printed in different languages side-by-side and you would count like four words in on each and go “Oh, so the word for ‘don’t’ in French is ‘la'”? Because I used to do this, and on basically day two of French class I realized how hopeless this method of “translation” is.) There are professional translators for books, and software and companies designed to deal with the problems I’ve imagined. There are even companies like Smartling that specifically focus on translating websites for businesses. And then there is the (rather extreme) method of simply learning a language and getting comfortable enough with it that you can read books yourself, and cut out the middle man (though I doubt I will ever achieve this).

So what have I learned in French class? I’ve learned that language is complicated, but that its nuances are important. I’ve realized that I love that I feel comfortable with the English language. I get pride from linking words together in new and creative ways–I want to explore the English language. I want more than a textbook understanding of English. And I’ve realized that studying other languages makes me pay more attention to my own, probably in the end making me a better writer.

And I’ve learned to not just gloss over the second byline on books that lists who the translator was. That person is pretty darn important, and did a really impressive thing. They fused two languages together and did their best to preserve the entirety of the story–not just the ideas conveyed by the funny bits and the strangely touching scenes. They had a hand in building the story that you read.

Merci, Madame.

4 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned In French Class

  1. My daughter is attending a dual language elementary school learning in both English and Spanish. A couple years ago she read the first 2 Harry Potter books, in English, and is planning on reading those same 2 books in Spanish this summer. I am really interested to hear her thoughts on the differences. She is 8 though, so I am sure it won’t be some crazy deep revelation but it will still be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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