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

Home And Away

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee