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Errors & Omissions: Caught short by a literal translation that wasn't quite le mot juste


On Thursday, a news report datelined from Toulouse reported: "Authorities insisted no attempts had yet been made to seize Mohamed Merah, 23, believed to be the 'scooter assassin' who murdered seven people in eight days."

Surely, that should be "scooter killer". The phrase was presumably translated. "Assassin" in French corresponds to the English "murderer". In English, "assassin" means one who murders a prominent person for a public reason. Merah fell within the broader French meaning, but not the narrower English one.

The same story threw up another Anglo-French misunderstanding on Wednesday. A picture caption, credited to AFP, the French news agency, said: "Soldiers stand guard in the subway in Toulouse after the third gun attack in a week."

French people who speak English are quite likely to speak American rather than British English, so it is not surprising to find a French agency using "subway", where a British writer would say "underground".

"Subway" is obviously wrong for a British newspaper. But I am not sure "underground" is any better, being specific to London. There is however, a word for an urban railway that is international and universally understood. Paris, Tyneside and Washington DC have each a metro. And so (an internet search informs me) does Toulouse. To call the Métro de Toulouse a "subway" is pretty daft. Let's make "metro" the usual word, except the familiar London Underground and New York subway.

Fall in! "A body of ancient soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade perhaps, marched down the aisle behind the pikemen, who wore their pretty box hats gay with flowers."

It is difficult to know whether Simon Carr, whose sketch of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee address to Parliament began thus, genuinely doesn't know what he is describing or is pretending not to for comic effect. In the first case what we have here is an error; in the second it is a joke. Either way, there is an omission. You might like to know that the "pikemen" in flowery hats were the Yeomen of the Guard. Their weapons are not pikes, but partisans. The "ancient soldiers" were the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, composed of retired senior military officers. They carry poleaxes. The corps was formed in 1509, so it is a lot older than the Light Brigade.

Confusing mistake: A news story on Wednesday reported: "Two British journalists who were detained in Libya have revealed they were held because their captors confused a passage of Welsh written on their medical supplies for Hebrew." "Confused for" is a new one on me. That should be either "confused with" or "mistook for". Pairings of verb and preposition are arbitrary, but getting them wrong is distracting for the reader.

Turning cartwheels: An article on road privatisation, published on Tuesday, included a strange statement: "It was the resurrection of an idea not popular in Britain since the heyday of the turnpike trusts 200 years earlier, when venture capitalists were called in to unclog the nation's vital arteries turned into quagmires by the advent of the cartwheel."

Whatever occasioned the building of the turnpike roads, it wasn't the advent of the cartwheel. Wikipedia says, "Carts have been mentioned in literature as far back as the second millennium BC."