Lost in Translation

Santa Rosa, California, United States
November 10, 2015

Words, words, words . . . I Blame Bill

I’m lost.

I haven’t even got on the plane yet and I’m lost.

Last year, I traveled to France in search of the ghost of an uncle, found the ghost . . . and in some ways found myself . . . on a golf course in Luxembourg, of all places. I returned home a new found man with a new found perspective.

This year, with the foolish hope that I might return to France better prepared, I’ve struggled to reacquaint myself with the French language. My plan is to spend a week immersed in French at Alliance Francais, a French language school in Paris where, given my proficiency in the language, I expect to be charitably placed in a class with a group of 8 year old Japanese students.

Okay, maybe that’s optimistic. Make that 6 year olds.

You’d think that with all the “searching” and “finding” that took place in Paris last year and a year’s worth of tutoring in French, I would be more confident about boarding an Air France 777 tomorrow for Charles DE Gaulle Airport.

I’m not.

And I blame words.


A Typewriter at Shakespeare & Co.

Let me explain.

The French have a phrase, “jeu de mots.” It is pronounced “zhoo-duh-moh. ”  Translated, it means “play with words” or simply, “wordplay.”

Don’t be impressed; I only know that because I asked Evelyne, my French instructor, how do you say “wordplay” in French and was surprised to hear that, for once, the French say something the same way we do.

Go figure.

No, don’t go figure.

See! There’s a good example of the perils of translation.Take that phrase, “go figure. To translate “Go Figure” you can’t simply mix and match the various meanings of “go” with the various meanings of “figure.” If you did you might end up with the translation “Start to think” (“Start” as in “Go Dogs Go” + “think” as in “wdya figure that Chevy is worth, Bubba?”). Or you might end up with “Invest in ciphering” (“Invest in” as in “I’ll go in fifty/fifty with ya, Orville” + “cipher” as in “these figures just don’t add up, Earl.”)

Think about it: how do you translate, “Go figure.”

The phrase is so much more than the sum of its literal parts.It has a little bit . . . “who woulda thunk.” A little bit . . . “I’ll be damned.” A little bit, “I can’t explain it.”  Add a hint of sarcasm, a bit of an edge, and more than a little attitude, as if to say. .. . .. “duh, doofus.”

I Broke the Rules and Took this Photograph

Words, French or English, are a mystery. They don’t lend themselves to math. They don’t add up or even multiply to equal meaning. They don’t line up in neat rows to be counted. They don’t sit in their seats when told. .

Words misbehave. They’re children. Words play.

And because they play, because they can’t be controlled, they often defy translation. And because they defy translation, I’m lost.

Konichiwa, mes amis.

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