In When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?, I mentioned that one of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis), which is the idea that a word in the target language ( the language you are translating into) may look like the word of the source language (the language you are translating from) but does not share a common meaning. For example, the Yiddish naar/nar originates from Hebrew na-ar, but Yiddish naar and Hebrew na-ar have different meanings. The Hebrew na-armeans“lad, young boy,” whereas the Yiddish naar, means “fool.”
Translation between languages, though not as demanding as translating translators from one place to another, bristles with problems. In the 1980s, I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the distance university, the University of South Africa. The occasion was my desire to do a B.A. Honours in French (which is done after the B.A., which I had obtained from the University of Cape Town).
I met Professor Haeffner in the corridor outside his office. He was very bristly and discouraging; but not as much as a rabbi accosted by a gentile who wanted to become, not merely one of the “sons of Noah” (bnei Noach), but wanted to go the whole hog – be a Jew. The Prof was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He wanted to test me then and there – in the corridor – whether I was Honours matériel. Now what can you ask someone in a corridor that will convince you that he will be able to do “French Honours.”
Prof – What is a “military parade” in French (Aside – “I’ve got the Yiddishe fool; watch him say “parade militaire”).
BogRaphy (moi) – un défilé militaire. (Aside –Who’s laughing inside now!).
Before Prof could ask me another, I shot back:
BogRaphy: “What does de fond en comble mean?” (BogRaphy’s ghost voice: de fond en comble means “from top to bottom” OR “from top to toe”).
Prof: (bristling – this time with confidence): “From top to bottom.”
Bography: Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and, like a onederringjew, index myderrière – for those who don’t know French – toches).It means top to toe.
A mutual hee hee hee. And that’s how I laughed my way into B.A. Honours (French). I returned to our little house in Mmabatho, built a make-shift wood and green fibre-glass lean-to on the side of the house, and spent many gutsy gusty night hours agonising over J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet’s contrastive analysis of French and English. If a Frenchman had to stagger into this conversation and groan – that in his English Honours translation class – he was (also?) “agonisant” over Vinay and Darbelnet, it would mean something completely different: he didn’t survive the course. Another “false friend” faux ami.
Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical pain or mental anguish.