Brian Viner: 'There aren't many words that sound better in English than French'

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Jane and I were greeted at Nice airport last Thursday by a sign warning of the dangers of grippe porcine, which sounds only marginally nicer than swine flu. I wonder, incidentally, whether it is only in Britain, with our warped humour, that swine flu jokes circulate? My favourite is the EH Shepard-style drawing in which Winnie the Pooh and Piglet are ambling through Hundred Acre Wood, the latter thinking "what a simply lovely day to be spending with my best friend Pooh", the former thinking "if the pig sneezes, he won't effing see me for dust!"

Anyway, the grippe porcine sign got us thinking about English-French translations. There aren't many words that sound better in English than French, just as very little sounds better in German than English. Bill Bryson got it right in Neither Here Nor There when he wrote about how curiously unappealing German menus are, offering Scheinensnout mit Spittle und Grit, or Ramsintestines und Oder Grosser Stuff.

But before we get too cocky about English being more pleasing on the ear than German, it's worth remembering that absolutely nothing in English, or French for that matter, sounds nicer than it does in Italian.

We watched Roberto Benigni's film Life Is Beautiful the other night, and not least of its many virtues is the sheer poetry of the language, starting wth the title, La Vita e Bella. There is a wonderful scene in which Benigni, working as a waiter in a smart hotel, tries to get a customer to order salmon and salad, because that is all he has available. But to make the man think that the choice is his, Benigni's character offers him gruesome-sounding alternatives, one of which was sub-titled as 'very, very fried mushrooms'. In Italian, however, it was funghi fritti fritti fritti, which sounds lovely. I can quite easily picture myself in a Tuscan trattoria ordering funghi fritti fritti fritti, if only for the opportunity of saying it.

Returning to French, not all phrases sound better than they do in English, and to stick with films, Jane likes to cite Le Facteur Sonne Toujours Deux Fois as an example of a literal yet unwieldy translation of the English title, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Then there is the slightly different matter of botched translations. A cousin of mine assures me that he once stayed in a cheap hotel in Paris where a sign in the lift said "please leave your values at the front desk". Mind you, having worked in a Parisian hotel as a humble porter, I can vouch for the fact that values, along with morals, often are left at the front desk.

That was back in 1981, a year which yielded my two most cherished examples of dodgy translation from French to English, and from English to French. The former came in a little bar in Pigalle, where a friend and I struck up conversation with a wizened old woman, who was delighted to find that we were English and reminisced fondly about all the British tommies she had "entertained" following the liberation of Paris in 1944. She talked late into the night, gripping my forearm with a bony hand whenever it looked as though we might leave, but when finally we managed to escape, she gave us a mostly toothless grin and, evidently dredging up what had been said to her following those wartime encounters, mustered her first English words of the evening. "Goodbye," she said, "and good riddance."

A few weeks later, my friend had an emergency appendectomy, after which her father arrived from England to take her home, confessing that on the way over he'd spent a bewildering half-hour in Boulogne asking directions to the train station in what he thought was passable French and getting only peculiar looks in response. It turned out that instead of asking the way to "la gare" (the station) he had asked the way to "la guerre" (the war). The locals must have taken him for an addled old soldier.

Whatever, on Sunday afternoon Jane and I passed through Nice airport again, on our way home, with two unusual basil plants that we'd bought at the market in St Tropez. We weren't sure whether we were breaking any laws by bringing basil into the UK, but decided not to ask. Of course, we will turn ourselves in if there is a devastating outbreak of basil flu, although personally I'd rather go down with grippe basilic.

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