Lost in Translation

A language directs the mind in a certain direction rather than in another. As the speaker of a particular language, one is more likely to conceive the world on a metaphoric and allegoric level that is different from that of the speaker of another language. A language, no matter which, is the warehouse of the collective memory of the people who speak it. For example, if someone is a traitor, in America, we say that he is a “Benedict Arnold,” don’t we? For an Englishman, he might be considered a hero. A Frenchman would have no idea what that means unless he is a student of the American Revolution. So for a translation into international French, one must use either “traitor,” without a reference to American history, or say “Judas,” a well-known traitor from Judeo-Christian tradition. These two solutions are insufficient. The former is too general; the latter brings us into a network of meaning that goes far beyond the original character. And let’s not even go into idiomatic expressions. A Frenchman would look at you with wild eyes if you said literally in French, “It’s raining cats and dogs” before raising them skyward in search of falling household pets. It would very much be like the face my neighbor made one day when one of my kids said to him, “I have a button on my nose,” not realizing that English had a different word for adolescent epidermal eruptions.

It is the same for the transition between English and French, a voyage the bilingual Louisianian makes every day. For most people, they are not able to go all the way since they are monolingual. They recognize, though, that another world exists on the other side of the language that contains objects, concepts and images that they can only perceive through a mesh screen. That is why we have brought over, imported if you will, certain words and expressions whose translation is difficult, problematic or even outright impossible. This voyage is also round-trip, French having borrowed from English words such as “weekend,” “budget” or “challenge” to introduce or re-introduce realities and concepts new or forgotten. The idea of having Saturdays and Sundays off grew when Henry Ford began closing his factories for those days. Often French people do not realize that these other two words, and many others, are in fact thanks to the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, of French origin. “Budget” comes from “bougette,” a small leather pouch that contained money. “Challenge” comes from “chalonge,” an insult that one would throw at a potential adversary. In spite of the frequent usage in English of words such as “rendezvous,” “blasé” or “avant-garde,” no one seems to worry about a new Normand invasion. Au contraire, it’s très chic! In Louisiana, the passage from one language to another is a true translation – that is to say, an act of transfer.  Unfortunately, as you well know if you are an experienced traveler, in transfers, as on trips, one has a tendency to lose one’s baggage.


In South Louisiana, certain realities cannot be reflected except through words that come from Louisiana French, such as “couillon,” “lagniappe” and “traînasse” and through expressions such as “mais là,” “ ca quand même” and “jamais de la vie.” “Idiot,” “imbecile” or “stupid,”  while close, do not capture the touch of burlesque fantasy that escapes other words besides “couillon.” Whatever its true origin (some say it comes from Spanish by way of the Indian language Quechua), “lagniappe” renders in a succinct and precise manner the expression “baker’s dozen.” And what do you call a watery trail that allows pirogues and other small boats to go between bayous and through the marsh other than “traînasse”? I cannot even think of an approximate equivalent, no more than any other word for bayou but “bayou.” All these words are the exact representation of our own reality in Louisiana. And how else does one express one’s astonishment or stupor other than by shouting “mais là”? And how else does one manifest one’s emotion before the beauty of a newborn child besides proclaiming “cher bébé”? Impossible, I tell you, impossible.

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