Thursday, August 23, 2012

Down and Up in Paris and London

English and French, sharing many of the same roots and differing in their development, have many “false friends”, i.e. words that sound like but may have subtle or not so subtle differences I meaning.   My favorite example from the financial world is the word exercise.  Very few native English speakers would even think that this term also can be translated as “fiscal year” in French financial documents. 

Somewhat related to the “false friend” issue is the matter of describing moods, both good and bad.  Sadness and joy in their many variations need to be expressed.  French and English tread slightly different paths.

On the dark side, Americans and Brits can feel a bit down or have the blues when their favorite team loses a game or their date cancels at the last minute.  It isn’t pleasant, but French speakers would also have le cafard for the same reason.  Now, of course, losing your job causes depression on both sides of the English Channel / La Manche.  A person who often feels low for no special reason suffers from melancholy, whatever your native language.  The English speaker might experience anguish at discovering that his/her spouse has been cheating for the last ten years, but it doesn’t seem to carry the sound and impact of the French angoisse.

On the bright side of life, eating a good ice cream might make you happy, but only a good job and home will make you content in the Anglo-Saxon world.  (Any parent of a teenage daughter understands the difference fully!)  By contrast, that same glace makes a Parisian content, but the newlywed French couple appears heureux.

So, free translation from French to English does not always express the speaker’s meaning.

By the way, to anybody who needs a good bittersweet laugh, I strongly recommend George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  He makes starvation funny.

Friday, August 17, 2012

You are what you drink – In Israel

Society can be differentiated by a variety of factors.  In Israel, by knowing what a person drinks, you can often guess their socio-economic status.

Jews in the Diaspora were more known for their hard work more than drinking, even in heavy-drinking countries like Russia.  This tendency shows in older Israelis, over 55, who spent most of their lives in Israel, meaning not including the last batch of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  For example, I was recently at a Bar Mitzvah brunch.  I noticed an interesting cause and effect: most of the adults were “aunts and uncles”, i.e. over the age of 55; there was no beer or wine on the table.  Curiously, nobody seemed to care or even request any.  For many people of this background, the only alcohol they regularly drink is sweet wine on the Sabbath. Alcohol is not part of their social way of life.

Younger, non-religious Israeli-born adults between the ages of 30-55 do drink alcohol occasionally.  The aspiring upper-class often orders wine and beer at restaurants and serves them at parties with friends.  To be fair, Israeli wine is quite good, with good soil and no shortage of sun here, but can be quite expensive relative to income.  The middle class tends to order beer.  Israeli beer, Maccabi and Goldstar, are quite good lagers, better than most American beers but slightly inferior to the top European brews.  The draft version is rather refreshing after a set of tennis or a hot day hiking.  More traditional Israelis enjoy Arak, an Ouzo-like, anise-based clear liquor or a traditional whiskey. 

The large Russian immigration of the 1990’s brought a love of vodka to Israel.  Initially, only the immigrants themselves partook of it.  However, today almost every non-religious Israeli under the age of 30, male or female, drinks vodka, now available in every food and beverage store, including candy stores!  For these people, liquor is becoming a requirement at any social occasion.  Going to a pub has become a way of entertainment, like in Europe or the United States. 

So, as Israeli society is evolving, so are its consumption habits.  There are marked differences in what people drink depending on their age and status.  To paraphrase a French expression, cherchez la boisson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Legally Put

As a legal translator, I am not intimidated by legal language, but I recognized that even most native speakers regard the language of Shakespeare and contracts in the same light: sounds impressive but what the hell does it mean?  Who, aside from attorneys, paralegals, and legal translators, actually reads all those words in small print?

However, there is a surprisingly variety of styles in legal writing, depending on the country, purpose of document, age of attorney, and general attitude of the writer.  Two examples of this variety involved the omnipresent legal concepts of need and permission.

All contacts describe the obligations and rights of a party (not including having a good time, of course).  The issue is how to express it.  The following sentences all technically express the same requirement:
a.      The Renter shall pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
b.      The Renter will pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
c.       The Renter commits to paying the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
- Added note:  On a sugestion from Janet Lerner, a fourth option is "The Renter is to pay the rent..."  Also very nice in my opinion.

Clearly, all three are clear and identical in meaning, with the difference being in the verb.  The use of shall as a determinative, not future, is based on the previously accepted distinction, at least by English teachers, between will and shall.  According to this archaic usage, the conjugation I shall, you will, s/he will, we shall, they will expresses the future while the conjugation I will, you shall, s/he shall, we will, they shall expresses a lack of choice.  In the case in hand, “The Renter shall…” means that the Renter has no choice.  Alas, for better or worse, I strongly doubt that many native speakers in the United States under the 30 know about this quaint rule.  In more modern English, the second sentence “The Renter will…” also expresses obligation.  The third option is less attractive both because it adds words and sounds like a translation.  However, language is a matter of taste sometimes.    As my father used to be a journalist, he ingrained in me a hatred of wasted words.

The second example involves expressions regarding the right to do something:
a.      The Lessor is entitled to cancel the agreement at any time.
b.      The Lessor has the right to cancel the agreement at any time.
c.       The Lessor may cancel the agreement.

Regarding the first, the word entitled is generally used for children and land purchases.  While technically correct, it is less applicable in this sentence.  The second is classic legal language, used in countless contracts.  However, the third is much less intimidating to the average reader and means the exact same thing.  There are disputes whether legal language should “go down” to the people.  The U.S. Congress has passed legislation ordering that.  Therefore, for reasons of simplicity, efficiency, and accessibility, I actually prefer the third option, although many lawyers would probably disagree with me.

So, no matter how you wish to legally put it, variety is the spice of life, or at least disputes, in the legal world.