Lost in Translation

I had to use that title sometime.  But it is so appropriate because I think that one of the reasons I became so intolerant of clichés is that I see their link to language.  If you can’t speak the language, and link it to culture and cultural practices, then how can you understand the meaning behind a behavior?  You can't, so you create or perpetuate a cliché. And language learning does not occur by osmosis, so people exist all of the time in bubbles of non-understanding.  My problem, when I arrived in Aix-en-Provence, knowing no one, and of almost no interest to any of the faculty at the university, who were not exactly sure why I had come in the first place, was that I did not know how to best go about learning French.  And when I finally realized that I needed in fact to pay for an enormously expensive intensive course at a language institute (or else go back to the U.S. unable to speak French), it was already January, I had been in Aix for almost six months, and I still could not even bring myself to enter a boutique in the centre ville for fear that a  sales person would approach me and ask if I needed any help.

More times than I care to admit I stood 10 metres from a pizza stand for up to an hour rehearsing how to say "Could I have a piece of anchovy pizza please?"  The vexing thing was that people who I had listened to ordering pizza used different words for "a piece" of pizza, and I was haunted by the idea that I didn't know which word was right.  I couldn't even tell if I was listening to a native speaker or some idiot who could only speak the language slightly better than I.  What was the difference between une part and un morceau and une portion and une tranche?  Who was right and who was wrong, and why all the possible words?  In real French did you even say a "slice" of pizza, or did you always call it a portion?  These thoughts held me frozen in place, often starving, as I rehearsed under my breath.  Jars of nutella were looking very tasty.

Other than planning my dinners, exploring the markets on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, and going on excursions to typical Provençal tourist spots (les Baux, Arles, Avignon) organized by the tourist office, I was hanging out with my friend Marie-France.  She had decided that it was not worth my while that she speak English at all, so she spoke to me only in French.  Since I did not understand any of her stories, she was probably surprised and pleased to find that she could recount them as many times as she wished, and that each time I would seem utterly amazed and interested, expressing my captivation with smiling and head nodding, often in the wrong parts of the stories.  Grunts and groans sufficed to express my agreement or sympathy for the ridiculousness of the situation that had befallen her (or him or them or us, who really knew?).  These conversations often took place as Marie-France drove me to some hidden little beach on the coast east of Marseille so that we could take a dip after work or before going to a secluded seaside fish restaurant that she wanted to show me.  As we wove vigorously in and out of the traffic en route to Cassis in her little Renault, and I clung urgently to the armrest, Marie-France told stories of being hit on by a former mayor of Bordeaux on the beach. At least that was what I thought the mayor was doing (and now, I know he was).

Once I started to be able to express a few simplistic ideas in French, I began to avoid English language situations altogether.  Not out of dislike for the English language or its speakers, but out of desperation. One of the consequences of my studious avoidance of everything English was that my colleagues in the United States started to feel alienated from me.  I didn't intend this to happen, I just could not afford to slow down my snail's progress in French.  My friend Carolin claimed that when I came back to the United States now and then for a conference, I tended to use the word voilà too often. Maybe I was.  In any event, I was aggravating everyone including my close friends and former university colleagues, but I just couldn't help it.  I was so alone and so desperate now to learn French after having taken the first painful steps that I didn't want anyone to interfere.

After all, I was faced with failure every day.  Often in French class our teacher, Emmanuel, played French radio for us, usually France Info, so that we could listen to short news stories and tell him what they were about.  Most of the German-Swiss students in my class were a far more advanced than I was, and they could actually discern a critical word or two.  Then they would bluff their way pretty well through the story for the teacher.  Each time someone could make out the slightest piece of a news story, I was floored.  "That story was about services rendered to Bill Clinton by Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office???  I thought it was about the grand opening of a new garden supply center!"  And the worst exercise in my French class involved listening to songs by Jacques Brel and taking dictation.  Well, not quite dictation.  We were supplied a sheet of paper with the words to the song such as Une Waltz à Trois Temps, only many words were missing and we had to fill in the blanks as we listened to the song. This was a hopeless exercise in humiliation.

Because I had learned German in grade school, starting at age 8, I had completely forgotten how it felt to learn a new language.  So as I struggled with French I started to recall with absolute sentimentality how easy it was to learn German.  Herr Heggen came in, spoke to us in German, we absorbed the language like sponges, and after a year or two we even had pretty good accents, because he did – as a native German -- and we were imitating it.  True description?  Certainly not, but by comparison with learning French as an adult, it felt true enough. Standing next to the whole notion of liaison in French, German now appeared to me to be a simplistic, concrete language.  So what if there are a lot of rules?  They are not so hard.  You can apply them with ease if you understand the basic notions of direct and indirect objects, and memorize a few articles and endings.  And the pronunciation and spelling of German words?  For an anglophone?  A piece of cake!  Why was I living in France?  What a difference knowing the language would have made.

Of course, however, German wasn't easy in the beginning, and intellectually at least I knew it. I forced myself to recall the fact that I had initially read German as slowly as glass moves, looking up every 5th word in the German-English dictionary.  The memory gave me reassurance and inspiration.  So, I bought American novels translated into French because I was certain that eliminating problems of cultural reference and habits, and adding a bunch of English words like "Manhattan" and "apple pie" and "Route 66" would make it all so much easier.  And, remembering that it had been necessary to do so in order to learn German, I looked up every 5th word.  Sometimes the 5th word was the same as the previous 5th word.  For many months every word I looked up slipped through my brain; I could not retain the words that were so new, so foreign, so different in spelling versus pronunciation.  I had no base, no schema, for the language.  And so my dictionary became embarrassingly discolored from my sweaty palms and slowly I developed some semblance of a French vocabulary.

Americans who had spent time in France had also given me the following advice about learning French before I left the United States:  Go watch French movies.  I still ask myself what in the world they were talking about, but during that year in Aix-en-Provence, I tried everything.  My first movie was "Marius et Jeannette."  The movie takes place in Marseille.  And the marseillais accent can be so heavy to the ears of a foreigner that that first at least it is barely categorizable as French.  "Marius et Jeannette" is a great movie, but so impossible to understand at the time that I left the theater in a state of angoisse.  I avoided movies for a while and then took another chance.  And another failure:  I went to the movie "On Connaît la Chanson."  In its own nightmarish way, this movie was as difficult to comprehend as "Marius et Jeannette."  The movie dialog is entirely put to music.  Sort of like "Les Parapluies de Charbourg," which I had by chance seen on the university campus before leaving on sabbatical.  The songs are famous French songs, and the audience found the movie incredible, familiar, and hilarious.  The laughter in the theater drowned out the words to the songs I couldn't understand or recognize.  

I have conducted some research on emotional language, and it is language about emotion that is the most difficult to learn.  Even if a particular word can be translated into another language, it is possible that the intensity that is signified is not the same.  This can lead to lots of misunderstandings, which I'll write about another time....

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 4:05 AM JUN 25, 2011