Words with no meaning

The French have a habit of entrusting translation to anyone with a bilingual dictionary, complains Michael Bulley

February 18, 2010

Andy Murray wins the French Open and, in the on-court interview, speaks in perfect, elegant French. Within a year, applications for modern language courses at British universities have trebled and professors of French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese are being asked by British museums and hotels to cast an eye over their multi-lingual information. It's not going to happen, is it? And yet it should be a respect for other languages that prompts people to learn them, not just promises of career advantages and an aim of bringing more money into the country.

What else, then, if our top sportsmen are not immediately going to become competent linguists, will create that respect? What if Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, were to demand that, for the good of Anglo-German relations, at least one member of the British Cabinet should speak fluent German? What if Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, were to complain about the poor French accent of the British announcer on the Eurostar train? It might work. Show you care about your own language and foreigners might jump to attention and decide it's important.

I can offer a view from France, where I've been living for the past six years. I find many French people dismissive about their own and their compatriots' abilities in other languages. English, in particular, is mostly learnt as a chore. This pessimistic, almost resentful, attitude reveals itself in the carelessness you find in many public translations. Some discrimination is in order, though. For, while it is one thing to see filet de bœuf translated as net of beef on the menu of a village restaurant, it is quite another, I should say, to find an international piano festival announcing that "you can soon to be able to purchase tickets" or a national science museum displaying a "particles detector".

Often the task of translation seems to have been entrusted to native French speakers qualified only by their possession of a bilingual dictionary, and then not necessarily an up-to-date one. I even wrote to the Ministry of Culture about it. The official in charge of linguistic affairs replied to me promptly, saying "Je crie dans le désert!" There is no law in France to prevent even public authorities from producing translations that are gibberish.

I must not mislead you. I have come across some excellent public translations here, but they are easily outnumbered by those of the dictionary owners I mentioned previously. Here are two examples of the bad sort. First, from a leaflet describing a historic hospital: "To the former pharmacy followed at the end of the 18th century a separated building, used only to that purpose and composed of a laboratory and a room of receipt." Second, some details about a bridge: "Renovated several times in consequence of spites and 2WW's damages, it presents again its original shape slightly rounded, with 4 cutwater."

If you suggest something is amiss, you are likely to be met with indifference. The document consists of English words: therefore it is in English.

The piano festival I mentioned above is that of La Roque d'Anthéron, a splendid event that takes place in Provence every summer. The word "international" in the title, though, has persuaded the organisers always to produce an English version of the programme notes. In past years, I have wondered what non-francophones were imagining as they looked forward to a pianist with a "resentful technique", lacking in "undue prudery", who was going to offer them "a piano tightrope walking".

I offered to do the translations one year and they said yes. So, among the brochures of the past 12 years, there is an odd man out. For the following season, though, they went back to the local translation firm to announce the date of the "billetery's opening".

So let's give the French a jolt for their own good. The next time you're in France and come across a bad translation, you must complain about this intolerable insult to your language, insist the errors be corrected immediately and say you'll send someone soon to check.

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