Lost In Translation

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Stop/ Arrêt Sign

Stop/ Arrêt Sign

I’m losing my French. Too bad I’m a French teacher.

It all started when I moved to Ottawa. The city is in Ontario but the French-speaking province of Quebec is only minutes away, across the Ottawa River. As a result, roughly 50% of the population speaks English and 30% of the population speaks French. Besides, Ottawa’s primary employer is the federal government and civil servants must be bilingual at some level (hey, that’s my job !). All in all, the city is pretty bilingual.

I spent the first couple of years immersed in the English world: I worked and lived in English. It’s only when I started working as a French teaching that I discovered Ottawa’s French side.

Franco-Ontarians, once called “warm corpses” and “dead ducks” by famous Quebec separatists, use a lot of English loanwords when they speak French. “J’vais driver mon pick-up”, “canceller un rendez-vous”, “scheduler un appointment”, «l’air-connditionné », “ appliquer pour une position” etc. are common sentences in Ottawa – and are widely understood by both French and English speakers. People still make fun of me when I say “parking”, the “French” word for “parking lot” though. “Parisian French has so many Anglicisms !”. Yeah. Right.

These Anglicisms led to a lot of misunderstandings before I finally mastered them. My first week in the school, I asked a co-worker what she did for the week-end.

— Qu’est-ce que t’as fait ce week-end? (“what did you do this week-end ?”)
–J’ai pris une marche. (“I tripped down the stairs… “, according to my French !)
— Oh, ma pauvre ! Ça va quand même? (“oh, poor you… are you okay?”)
— Ben oui, t’aime pas prendre des marches (“why wouldn’t I ? Don’t you like taking walks ?”)

That’s where I realized she translated directly from English « to take a walk » and she didn’t actually tripped down the stairs.

My students didn’t help either. Teaching means explaining, repeating, dissecting a language. It also means that by the end of the first month, you’ll pick on everyone’s French… or English. Pronunciation, conjugation, idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, spelling, whatever. I correct Feng all the time, even though his English is by far better than mine. I correct other teachers, who correct me in return. When I read my mail, I mentally rephrase Canada Revenue Agency prose and I spell-check my Visa bill. And I the end, I don’t even know what’s correct anymore. Prepositions and tenses mix up in my head. Should I use the subjunctive here ? Who knows !

But above all, some North-American concepts just can’t be translated in French.You may have hear of the French automotive industry. You should have anyway (irony, irony…). The biggest car known to French is the equivalent of a very very small SUV, manufactured by Renault : the Espace. The words “SUV” or “Pick-up” don’t make any sense in French. It just doesn’t exist. So whenever I want to talk about a SUV, I just say “a big Espace”. Close enough, but not a great translation.

And how would I translate “food court” (food stalls in a big shopping mall ?), “hash browns” (pan-fried potato pieces ?) or “poutine” (a dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and covered with hot gravy ?)…?

The expression “garage-sale” can be translated in French by “vide grenier” (literally, “empty-attic”). Logic. French apartments often have an attic but rarely have a garage! However, the “vide-greniers” are by far less popular than their “garage-sale” counterpart. Good translation but a different concept.

Management, marketing, leadership are North-American concepts, imported in Europe. French kept the English words but pronounce them the French way (yes, it does sound sexier). Québec translated “management” by “gestion et administration”, and I’ve heard of “mercatique” for “marketing”. However, “leadership” just doesn’t have a French translation.

Sometimes, you just can’t fit the North American logic and way of life in French. I’m lost in translation.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Princesse Ecossaise on

    I LOVE this post zhu! it’s really odd to see the francophones using english words! Must be quite difficult actually for you and other people from France to arrive in Ottawa and hear French spoken in a different way from what you previously knew. I certainly wouldn’t understand what was going on now, but it might have made french a little easier for me to learn back in the days when I believed just sticking a french accent onto an english word was speaking fluent french!

    The more I read your blog the more I want to come to Ottawa, it sounds and looks like a great place, and a city that I would fit into well. A bilingual city, I love it! FP is desperate to visit Quebec, maybe in a year or ten (when the money has been saved!) we’ll fly over and say hello…or bonjour! or…bonday or goodjour, whatever they say over there! :-p

  2. We usually say “allô” here for bonjour. I’m still not sure what you say when you’re on the phone though…

    Oh, and “bonjour!” actually means “bye”. Direct translation of “have a good day” ! 😉

  3. ~*SilverNeurotic*~ on

    What about the other 20%?

    Not too long ago I was watching the extras on one of my Gilmore Girls dvd’s and they mentioned that a lot of the dialog they use can’t be translated. Must be interesting for a non english speaker to watch that show.

  4. Votre article est fort intéressant.

    Je tiens toutefois à vous faire remarquer qu’au Québec, il existe des mots ou des expressions pour décrire plusieurs des concepts nord-américains (et donc, par extension, québécois) que vous mentionnez.

    Par exemple:

    SUV se traduit au Québec par “Véhicule utilitaire sport” ou “VUS”

    Un “food court”, ça s’appelle ici une “foire alimentaire”.

    “Hash Brown” => “galettes de pomme de terre” (ou, plus communément le moins joli “patates hachées brunes” chez McDo)

    Comme nous n’avons pas de grenier ici, l’expression “vente de garage” me paraît davantage appropriée.

    un lecteur arrivé ici par hasard

  5. la bellina mammina on

    Cool post! Same for me when I have to do a translation in italian to english or vice versa – when you translate it literally, it doesn’t make sense.

    I studied french for 2 years, but for soe reason I suck in the pronounciation dept, so whatever I say always came out sounding funny with no meaning whatsoever!!

  6. Interesting post! Kind of like me having to adjust to the way Scots speak English! Funny how the same language can be so different depending on what country you’re in!

  7. The only phrase I was using when I went to Paris was “Je voudrais un croissant, s’ il vous plait!”. You dont have to be a monster of imagination to realise how much weight I picked up on that trip:) [nah I talked more than that truth be told, lol]

    Seriously though, my french was “good to fairly decent” but havent used it for ages unfortunately, so a lot of the vocabulary has vanished from my brain by now. Hope I got the time to refresh it at some point!

    Great post Zhu! Now how about that ‘croissant’? LOL

    Have a great weekend!

  8. I love this post.

    I think my husband could probably relate to a lot of this. He came to the US in his late teens and doesn’t have the opportunity to speak Spanish on a daily basis. As a result I think his Spanish is kind of stunted at age 17. Not only that, but sometimes he forgets words in Spanish.

    I imagine that must be frustrating.

    I liked reading about the direct translations that don’t work. I think you can find examples of this in all languages.

    Spanish has a habit of just using the English word when there isn’t an equivalent in Spanish. For example, all the Spanish speakers I know called “basements”, well, “basements” – b/c they had never had one back in their home country and only encountered them in the US. (Though I’m sure this isn’t the case for all Spanish speakers.)

    I guess the French don’t borrow from English though. I’ve heard they’re very strict about keeping the language pure? Is this true?

    Well, have a great weekend!

  9. I didn’t know at all that Ottawa is a bilingual city, its quite weird to me that french has a great amount of influence in that place, when both countries are quite far away from each other. May be I had to read more on history…
    Anyway, do you plan to ‘trip down the stairs’ this weekend, Zhu?!?

  10. Well, reading your post sent shivers down my spine, as my mind wandered back to my French lesson days at school with Monsieur Gilles. I was never great at French and had to chuckle at princesse ecossaise’ comment about speaking English with a French accent – I couldn’t even manage to do that lol!!!

    It seems that ‘American English’ is starting to take over the world. I was speaking to my Japanese colleagues at work recently and they informed me that many schools in Japan are now teaching “American English” rather than “the Queen’s English”. What is this world coming to????

    Thanks for yet another great post!

    Très bien,

    à bientôt ~ Graham 🙂

  11. Look on the bright side, Zhu. Soon, you’ll be bilingual in your own language!

    And speaking of langauge, take a look at my latest post – we have related themes this week 🙂

  12. ~*SilverNeurotic*~ : I wondered too and I had a quick look at the 2001 census. It seems that a small percentage is bilingual and a biggest portion doesn’t speak French nor English.

    All the movies and TV are dubbed in France… and cultural references are tough to translate !

  13. Cher anonyme,

    C’est vrai que le Québécois a réussi à traduire des concepts Nord-Américains, beaucoup plus que le Français de France, proximité oblige… en fait, dans mon article, je parlais surtout de “mon” Français 😉

    Mais j’ai tout de même l’impression que certaines traductions ou adaptations passent mieux que d’autres. Par exemple, il m’est assez naturel de dire “utilitaire sport” pour “SUV”, si je parle à un Nord Américain bien sûr. De même, l’expression “vente de garage” est naturelle : les Québécois on bien sûr le même type de maison que leurs voisins Ontariens !

    Par contre, certaines traductions ne semblent pas être reprise par les Québécois ou Franco-Ontariens. Je n’entends presque jamais le mot “foire alimentaire”, et c’est dur aussi pour moi de l’emploi car une foire serait plutôt des manèges et de la barbe à papa dans mon esprit !

    Ah, la langue…! 🙂

  14. la bellina mammina : I studied Italian for a while too (I have an Italian background…) but kept on using Spanish words ! :$

    ErinOrtlund : amazing, isn’t it ! I think English language is more adaptable though, because it’s so widely spoken in the world. I.e the British vocabulary can be pretty different !

  15. Deadpoolite : cookies, croissant… make up your mind !!! 😀

    I went to get my hair cut yesterday and the hairdresser was a Greek woman. I proudly said : kalimera and efkaristo poli. I got a great haircut !!! :$

    So, you learned French as well ? I almost took modern Greek (my mum learned it in school… learning weird languages runs in the family !) but took Chinese instead.

    Tracy : French borrow from English quite a lot. Actually, in France, people borrow the entire word : parking (for parking lot), jogging, stop etc.

    Quebec tend to translate a lot but translate almost literally, hence the “talk a walk” misunderstanding.

    I feel for your husband… it’s very frustrating to forget one’s mother tongue, yet not being totally fluent in the other. Been there…

  16. zunnur : French immigrants settled in Quebec, and Quebec is close to Ottawa, hence the fact Ottawa is fairly bilingual.

    French is spoken almost on every continent for various reason… former colonies, influence etc. Surprising, I know !

    I’ll watch the stairs for this WE 😉

    Getty72 : Monsieur Gilles has done a bad job with you ??? Oh… je suis désolée d’entendre ça !

    I was really bad with English at school to actually. Our teacher was French and probably been one in the UK around 300 BC, so my accent was… well, anything but English.

    In Europe, we still learn UK English. Very confusing for me when I first came to North America… it took me a while to adjust !

  17. john : I’m indeed thinking of creating my own language. Mix of French, Spanish, Chinese and English. Then I’ll teach it all over the world !!! 😛

    I’ll come over to read your post…

    Diesel : that, and the fact Bush didn’t cheat on Mrs. Bush. We liked Clinton best.

  18. Welcome to the Brave World of Franglais!
    Cool post Zhu!
    Just try to imagine a French TV reporter giving notice that “M. Churchill a rencontré M. Eisenhower à Washington”… Drôle, n’est-ce pas?
    Have a nice weekend!

  19. Hiya Zhu…just wanna thank you for your well wishes to me at my blog 🙂 Thank you!!

    I have travelled to France many times and it was only in Year 2004 when we bring our kids along, we bought French tapes to learn some basic greeting skills…..I suppose the more you use it, you more you are fluent in it….

  20. Hiya Zhu! I love his blog!! You bring to light such a true thing about the connection between language and culture. Sometimes teaching others about your own language helps you to learn more about it.

    My Mexican friends always ask me how to say silly things in Japanese – things that simply have no context in Japanese culture and thus have no accurate words. My American friends also ask me the same but in Spanish.

    Spanish Spanish is very different from Mexican Spanish – so when my American friends try to talk to me in the Spanish they learned in school (Spanish from Spain) things are sometimes a little different.

    When I was living in Tokyo for school, my English teacher was educated in Australia and we often had heated debates on English grammar and vocabulary (why you can’t say “Put it in the boot” or “come knock me up” in the USA, but is perfectly understandable in Australia and the UK).


  21. GMG : welcome here ! You have such a cool blog, all these travels, pictures etc. I’ll be back ! 🙂

    Shionge : French can be hard at first because it’s quite different, but it gets better. Let me know next time you go to France, I’ll teach you some basics !

    Glad to see you’re well now 🙂

    Sebastian : “teaching others about your own language helps you to learn more about it.

    This is so true ! I love that, I learned a lot about French and English myself since I live in Canada.

    Language is also very political here, which only makes it more interesting to study :$

  22. The expression “garage-sale” can be translated in French by “vide-grenier” (literally, “empty-attic”).

    Wow! I have an empty attic. I wonder if that means I’m having a garage sale? Let me go and see.

    Holy crap! I am! There are tables out back and people are already shuffling through my stuff! 🙂

  23. Oh mon cherie! This happens here in the United States with Spanish and the overwhelming power of the English language!

    We have a new generation of US-Born Latinos who speak a mix of English and Spanish called SPANGLISH and to me it sounds horrible! It ruins the beauty and sound of the Spanish language.

    Maybe I’m just a stuck-up purist or something!

  24. Céline from Limoges on

    I guess the best translation you could use for SUV could be “(un) monospace”. This is the word we (French from France) actually use for big cars such as “Espace”. “Espace” is quite outdated actually 😉
    You could also use “(un) quatre-quatre” (= “4×4”)according to the type of vehicle it is.
    Great article, by the way ! 😉

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