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.

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