Monday, 8 October 2012

Interesting translations

Sometimes a translation suddenly enlightens. With a flash of light we see the difference between two cultures, two ways of thinking, two habits of life.

For instance, I was recently browsing a number of French recipes to see what I should cook for dinner. Suddenly I realised that all the small dashes of liquid - a splash of milk, a little wine added to a sauce - were described as so many 'cuillères de cafe'. In English, literally, that translated to 'coffee spoons'. But we would actually say teaspoons.

In that difference you find the huge difference between the coffee-drinking French and the tea-drinking English; the café au lait of breakfast time or the thick, small, black coffee, and the mug of builders' tea or the pot of breakfast tea.

There's also a certain abstraction to the French language that just doesn't work in English. I read today of the mothers of Srebrenica; a photo of three women mourning over the coffins of only recently identified dead were described as lamenting 'un etre cher' - literally, a dear being. We could never be that abstract in English without a charge of chilliness or emotional distance being laid against us. (I can't imagine a French novelist being told to 'show not tell'... there's a fearsome abstract and idealising strain behind Perec, Robbe-Grillet, and Christine Brooke-Rose, French in all but language and nationality).

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