Not Lost in Translation: French in the New World

Traveling to Québec and to Louisiana gives the linguistically minded American a good chance to explore calque, defined as "loan translation." A French word or expression may be based exclusively on North American usage. In France one orders une glace for dessert, but in Québec the ice cream is literally la crème glacée. In France the reply to merci is de rien, while in Québec the reply is bienvenue!, based on the North American "you're welcome." If you want to have fun in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler! just like the Anglophones in other states. When you hang up the phone in Québec, you need to say bonjour instead of au revoir, because you are literally saying "Have a good day!" And in both Louisiana and Québec on tombe en amour: one falls in love North American-style.

Calque is a confusing concept because it encourages non-native speakers to experiment with literal, word-for-word translations. For example, the idiomatic expression J'ai d'autres chats à fouetter ("I have other cats to beat") makes no sense to a speaker of English unless the translation is something completely different: "I have other fish to fry." "When pigs fly" is translated as Quand les poules auront des dents ("When hens will have teeth").

Despite efforts by the Académie Française to keep the French language as far away as possible from North American influences, it is noteworthy that many common expressions in France are based on English: lune de miel (honeymoon), planche à neige (snowboard), assurance santé (health insurance), gratte-ciel (skyscraper). Many contemporary terms related to the latest technology are based on calque: joueb refers to a Web journal, that is, a "weblog" or "blog." Carte mère is a loan translation of "motherboard." En ligne means "online," and disque dur means "hard disk." Un baladeur, originally used to designate the old Walkman that played cassette tapes, now refers to the MP3 player or iPod.

For those who want to take calque where it has never gone before, check out the ever-popular book Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames ("Mother Goose Rhymes") by Luis d'Antin van Rooten (1967, and still in print). English words take on new meaning when they are pronounced à la française.

—Lydia Belatèche
Senior Lecturer of French


Dolce Far Niente


Lifestyle and language intermingle in Italian.

My friend Guido offered to teach me how to be Italian. I arrived in Modena with high hopes of living the affluent life à la Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun. How I would enjoy living her life of chatting with the frustrating (but quaint!) masons on the veranda next to the swimming pool and inviting them in to sample my new batch of honey grappa. Being rich in Italy was the life for me.

As a poor college student with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, I realized my dreams of affluence in the bel paese were reserved for wealthy (and lucky) millionaire professors. Instead, Guido rescued me and showed me that living well in the Mediterranean is more about attitude than about cash flow. He explained the Italian mantra dolce far niente (how sweet it is to do nothing). Remember Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita? Sure, he's a journalist, but what does he actually do? He cruises around from party to decadent party in his Alfa Romeo Spider as beautiful women fawn all over him.

Guido assured me that in Italy the fast-paced American lifestyle can only lead me down the wayward path to the dreaded brutta figura (making a fool of myself). "Don't try to do everything. When you do something, do it perfectly," he advised.

Even walking down the street is a refined art. Your clothes must be pressed and, most importantly, your sunglasses perfectly clean. Hold your head high and never rush as if your life is out of control. The big test is the Sunday passeggiata (stroll) when the whole town walks down the Via Emilia to chat and show off the latest fashions. The Italian verb pavoneggiarsi (strut like a peacock), sums up this weekend ritual. Rather than risk the crowds on the main drag, the old men usually stay in the piazza dressed in their tailored suits and Borsalino hats.

Guido is quick to dispel the stereotype that Italians are lazy, though. After all, it was Italian futurist F. T. Marinetti who waxed eloquent about how "the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed." This is the land of Maserati, Lamborghini, and Ferrari. Drive as fast as the laws of physics permit in the sleekest machine made, but then relax in the shade with a Campari and soda. I took his advice but had to settle for an aging 1963 Lambretta scooter that left a trail of blue smoke. At least I got noticed.

"I don't live to work, but I work to live," Guido told me about his job in the post office. Somehow Italians manage to make work look easy, or perhaps the famous five weeks of vacation keep them well rested. Or maybe it's the smell of fresh tortellini wafting in the windows that calls everyone to a long lunch and a nice nap. Back in Minnesota, I'll quickly eat a cold sandwich--sometimes even in my car--to save time. In Modena, businesses close from noon to four, and there's no pretense of "saving time." What are you saving time for? To relax? I've come to love this slower pace and I try to take the strikes and other interruptions as another challenge to my American view of wanting to go as fast as possible. Unless I'm on my Lambretta, of course.
--Eric Dregni

Eric Dregni is the author of several books including Midwest Marvels, Weird Minnesota, and Grazie a Dio non sono bolognese. His latest is In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream from the University of Minnesota Press.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on January 30, 2009 10:11 AM.

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