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Lost in Translation? Not.

In the interest of improving my French without writing out all the possible variations of je ne m'en suis jamais entendu parler, I ordered a copy of Adam Gopnik's De Paris à la lune (translated by Jean Lefèvre). I already had the original, although I'd never opened it, having read the contents when they appeared in The New Yorker in the Nineties. It occurred to me, though, that the translation would be reasonably hip - I was not taught ONE useful phrase in school and I want my money back!!! - so that, if I came across a phrase that I didn't quite grasp, I could see what it was supposed to mean in sophisticated English.

Didn't have to read far. I began with a very short (but very trenchant) piece about an incident at the Tour Eiffel, "Problème à la Tour." Here's the very first sentence.

En juillet, Paris est quasiment abandonné aux touristes et à leur suite tandis que les autres filent vers le sud ou vers l'ouest, bref ailleurs.

Oh, that word, it drives me crazy: ailleurs. Don't tell me what it means, because "elsewhere" never works in the translation of any sentence that I've found it in. "bref ailleurs" stumped me completely. "Brief elsewhere?" No dictionary would ever clear up this mystery. I hoped that Mr Gopnik's original, "Trouble at the Tower," would. (Note "Problème" for "Trouble" - trouble wouldn't be correct, but the alliteration is lost.) And it did.

Paris in July is pretty much left to the tourists and the people who look after them, while everyone else goes south, or west, or, in any case, away.

There's a lot to learn from this example beyond the meaning of "bref ailleurs" - which, I also note, is not preceded by ou. "Abandonné" replaces "left to," and "filent" replaces "goes." "The people who look after them" becomes "leur suite." I'd have never figured that out, because (I think) I know what suite means, and it sort of makes sense, sort of, except that of course it doesn't. Is "quasiment" a spot-on equivalent of "pretty much"? I suppose that it is, although the fat red dictionary gives "almost, practically" and "more or less." I know that presque would be wrong, or not quite right, but until now quasiment has not taken its place in my speaking vocabulary.

And that's what this is all about: my speaking vocabulary. It is much, much smaller than my reading vocabulary. The only way to import more words into my speaking vocabulary is to use them, but you can see the problem right away. Without massive drilling, it's going to take forever. Working out sentences such as these is a powerful substitute. What's more, it translates the kind of English that I aspire to write (and hope that I sometimes do). Mr Gopnik is a hugely talented writer with a command of nuance that frightens me, because I can't gauge its shelf-life.

It's sobering for any serious writer to wonder how long the writing will be intelligible, easily read. Educated Anglophones still read Shakespeare as Shakespeare wrote it, although with copious notes. The same is not true of Montaigne, a writer not quite a generation older than Shakespeare. One reads Montaigne in "translation." It's true that modern French doesn't really take off until the latter third of the seventeenth century, but English as we speak it isn't much older than Jane Austen. (Of course, Shakespeare is Shakespeare.) Interestingly, Dante, I believe, is still largely intelligible to Italians, while Chaucer, who learned a lot from Dante, writes in Middle English, a foreign language.

It's fun to see what happens to references that French readers could be forgiven for not understanding. This

exactly the look you see on the face of an impatient commuter at the Holland Tunnel who is stuck in the exact change lane behind a woman who has entered it on a hunch


le regard assassin qu'un automobiliste respectueux des règles lance à une resquilleuse écervelée.

The "impatient driver" becomes a scrupulous one, while the French lady driver has taken on a cast of criminal intent that is sweetly at odds with being scatterbrained. And the "you" who sees the exchange, so basic to stand-up humor, disappears altogether. This is the wonderfully unfaithful fidelity of sound translation. French and English are so different, but so complementary. That's why it's great not to have to choose. 


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You hit the nail on the head. "Bref" stumped you precisely because of its conversational nature. They may just as well have appended "quoi" at the end of that sentence.

On a tangentially related note, I am now browsing one of my grandfather's many tomes on violins, the classic History of the Violin by Sandys and Forster, published in London in 1864. (Mine is a mid-20th-century reproduction, sadly, not a first edition.) In the educated writing style that endlessly amuses me, and which one still occasionally sees in the New York Review of Books, the book quotes liberally in French, without translation. Not only that, but it also quotes antiquated French without translation. Fortunately for me, there isn't any untranslated Latin.

I use bref a ton, even to mean "whatever" at the end of a phrase. I have the opposite problem of you--I never read in French!

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