The truth ... or the French translation

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The Independent Online
Did you know that there is a mid-Channel language half-way between France and England which is a mixture of French and English? No, it is not Franglais - indeed, it is as far from Franglais as it is possible to get, being invented by and approved of by the French.

Let me put it another way. I received a letter with a French postmark the other day from the Marquise de MacMahon, a lady of whose existence I had been unaware until that moment. It was in no sense a personal letter, as she seems blissfully unaware of my existence outside a mailing list and merely wants me to buy some of her wines by mail order. In fact, the letter started with the most impersonal opening possible, namely "Dear Sir, dear Madame".

Let me quote some more.

"Dear Sir, dear Madame, The earth slowly comes to life again, the green spikes of our daffodils show streaks of yellow, the vines are `crying' from their final pruning. Symbolic for a religious Easter, with all nature bursting with new energy and promise for the year ahead.

"We are moving into the Chinese year of the Rat, a year that promises prosperity. I hope this includes grape harvests! The 1996 vintage is already formed within the eight tiny buds along each pruned vine stem.

"The warm wet winters and springs we have been having these past few years do not help eliminate the various nasty creepy-crawlies or fungi that menace our vineyards. Fortunately, vignerons are inspired by the eternal cycle of hope and faith inherent in any kind of agriculture: every year the crop is going to make the best millesime this century!"

"Air the wines a little to allow the full savours and nose to develop. Don't ice the bottles, just bring them straight up from your unheated cellar or pantry, uncork, and, as they say in the southern US, Enjoy! Order now and stock up for all those spring

festivities, Easter egg-hunt lunches, god-daughters' confirmations, nephews' weddings.... Or just relax after a hard morning digging the herbaceous border with a well deserved glass of delicious Burgundy...."

The language in which this letter is written is one that no English person on earth has ever written or spoken. It is translator's English, a language that is so tied to the language of origin that a perceptive reader could immediately identify which foreign language is being translated from, even if words such as vigneron and millesime had not been left untranslated.

This letter from the Marquise is, beyond any doubt, a literal translation from French. Only the French can so easily go into overdrive in the first sentence of a letter. "The earth slowly comes to life again, the green spikes of our daffodils show streaks of yellow, the vines are `crying' from their final pruning."

In English it sounds ridiculous, but in French it sounds impressively orotund and semi-poetical. Or, to put it another way, ridiculous.

Of course, what is obvious about this letter is that it has been translated, not by a native English-speaker, but by a French person.

A native English-speaker would never say that insects are "menacing" our vineyards. "Menacer" is the common word in French, but in English "threaten" is the common word and "menace" is slightly archaic. Nor, I think, would we use a jokey word like "creepy-crawly", nor would we say that farmers "are inspired by the eternal cycle of hope and faith." Nor would we leave untranslated words such as "vigneron" and "millesime". A vigneron is a wine-grower, so why not say so? Does it sound more impressive in French?

And it is assumed that we know what a "millesime" is, but I have to admit that I didn't know the word. So I looked it up. And it means "the year of manufacture" or "vintage". The French don't have a word as generally useful as our vintage. Our word "vintage" obviously covers everything covered in French by different words like "cru" and "millesime" and "annee de belle recolte" but the French don't know this, so they prefer to use their own word "millesime" even though we don't know what it means.

Put it another way. A proper English translation of the original French would go like this: "Dear customer, Well, spring is here again and with any luck we'll have a good harvest this year, so I am enclosing our list of this year's prices ..."