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Lost In Translation

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.

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