Brian Viner: 'Slight mistranslations can cause big problems on foreign exchanges'

Thursday 11 February 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Our friends Jane and James have just waved off their 13-year-old son Jack on the school French exchange trip. Jack is spending a week with a family near Grenoble, and later in the year the French child will come to Herefordshire. After a couple of days, Jane and James still hadn't heard from Jack, which they took to be a sign that everything was fine. After all, Jane knows that the French mum is a nurturing type because before Jack left she received an e-mail asking "what does it eat for its breakfast?" Wisely, Jane ascribed this to Madame's slightly shaky English, rather than any inclination to regard the teenage Anglais as inanimate or inhuman.

Slight mistranslations – in this case a confusion obviously arising from the French word 'il', which can mean either 'he' or 'it' – can cause problems on these foreign exchanges. My friend Mike still talks about the trauma he suffered more than 30 years ago, when he was 11 and happily installed at the home of a French boy called Didier, until Didier and his mother became hysterical at the tragic news that "Papa est mort". Mike was horrified too – Didier's father had picked him up from the airport the day before, and seemed in excellent health – but eventually he worked out that 'Papa' was the Pope, John Paul I, dead at the age of 65.

Of course, dodgy translating is a two-way business. My daughter Eleanor thought it was hilarious when she received her first letter from a French pen pal a few years ago, also a school initiative, in which young Marguerite described herself as having "the green eyes and many of the brown hairs." But I pointed out to Eleanor, admittedly after a good chuckle myself, that her reply in French had doubtless caused similar mirth chez Marguerite.

Sometimes, difficulties can arise because a word in one language has a strikingly different meaning in another. Or a surname can cause problems, as in the memorable case of some other friends of ours, Belinde and her husband John. Belinde is Danish and booked their honeymoon 15 years or so ago in her maiden name, which was Fode. It's a common name in Denmark, apparently, but in Portugal the word 'fode' is a profanity meaning sexual intercourse. Unfortunately, John and Belinde spent their honeymoon on the Algarve, where all kinds of misunderstandings ensued, not least on arrival at the hotel, where the receptionist presumably wondered why they were explaining the purpose of their stay in the box marked 'name'.

Inadvertently tripping over a language barrier can have more serious consequences. Jimmy Carter, one of the most intelligent of US presidents but also one of the more hapless, told the Poles on a visit to Warsaw in 1977 how much he liked them. Fair enough, except that the interpreter's translation had Carter telling his audience how much he desired them carnally. Regrettably, there is less truth in the famous story that by saying "ich bin ein Berliner," John F Kennedy was informing the people of Berlin that he was a jam doughnut. People who speak German better than I do insist that although the word Berliner can also mean a certain kind of pastry, there was, alas, no ambiguity at all.

Speaking of doughnuts, the head of modern languages at Jack's school here traditionally addresses the parents before the French kids arrive, asking them to respect the simple, nutritional diet of the average French teenager. They won't touch fizzy drinks or processed food, he tells them, implying a wholesome image of young Jean-Pierre or Jeanne-Marie sitting down every night to a glass of freshly drawn milk and a bowl of maman's cassoulet. Yet we know one family whose French exchange kid was addicted to bacon crisps, refused to touch vegetables, and took home several bottles of sparkling Vimto, which he thought was the most exciting discovery of his week in England.

I suppose that in France, as here, it all depends on the family. There are cultural differences aplenty even within the United Kingdom, which brings me to the English-Gaelic phrase book offering the Gaelic for, among other things, "fetch me half a muchkin" and "shall I beat him?" Maybe Jack's better off in France than the Outer Hebrides.

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