Monday, 6 May 2013

My hovercraft is full of Coquilles St. Jacques


At the weekend, a friend of mine was wearing the above fantastic tee-shirt. In his defence, he was using a chainsaw at the time, a task which almost demands a lack of sartorial elegance, so a cheap market-stall tee-shirt was a good idea.After a quick explanation of ‘dickie’ and its concomitant relatives: dick, dick-head etc, he said he’d let me have a spare.I haven’t worn it, as Bertand has exactly the sort of build you would expect of someone who spends his weekends wielding a tronçonneuse for fun. It would look like I was wearing a tent capable of housing an extended family of Bedouins.

Items of this kind are not rare in France, not that the French are any more prone to this sort of linguistic goobledygook than anyone else. It’s just that such things are more noticeable when in one’s own language. I read recently that the fashion for Chinese character tattoos a few years ago - so passé now apparantly - led to a generation of fashion victims being stuck for life with slogans such as: ‘get 2 pizzas for a fiver’ emblazoned across their biceps. Actually, I made that up, but you get my drift.

I’ve been fascinated by this phenomenon ever since I’ve lived here. My two favourites have to be: ‘designed by robots, built by Moroccans,’ which was on a pair of cheap jeans and ‘Holy St. James Shell’ for Coquilles St. Jacques on a restaurant menu.

Generally, these aberrations come about due to people not really caring about good translation, especially when they have to pay for it. I’ve seen things, even at places like Versailles, which were quite incredible. 

Trying to perfect a language has its pratfalls. I once worked in a language school in Paris on Boxing Day, when everyone goes back to work. A student asked me if I had a wooden face. It took a second to realise that he was literally translating gueule de bois.* 

Just after we moved to France, I took a passport-type photo to a picture editor of a Parisian magazine,. The guy was a type who is seen less often nowadays; he shrugged a lot and had a ‘Gauloise’ permanently hanging from the corner of his mouth. He liked my stuff and asked me to bring him the picture, so he could file it with photographers he wanted to use. I’d had a stye or minor eye infection and tried to tell him, in my terrible French, that the picture made me look like I had a glass eye. He regarded me, completely straight faced and merely muttered ‘ ah bon?’ It was only the following day that I realised that I had actually said: ‘like a glass ear.’ It’s strange, but even now, nearly 21 years later, I have to stop and think about the difference. It seems that language acquisition can sometimes be traumatic.

* A hangover.

1 comment:

  1. When in France, my kids would always get a blast out of Pschitt lemonade.

    I have a small collection of tourist leaflets somewhere, acquired over the years, which have clearly been translated into English by the head of tourism's 12-year-old niece. Someone could probably knock out a Christmas stocking-filler book of such stuff (they probably already have).

    All at the hour!