A Jewish view of a French Bottom

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.

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/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 my derrière – 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 spend 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.

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6 thoughts on “A Jewish view of a French Bottom

  1. Wonderful! It is gratifying to realize there are other people as sensitive to the nuances of language as I am. Yet how beautiful and how wonderful to be able to appreciate these.

    Thanks for sharing, Bog. Let me present you with another train of thought I bet you’ve never considered: linguistic programming analysis. I work as a computer analyst and consultant, and my clients usually bring me in to rescue their undocumented code or confusing programs. After a while one can tell in moments who wrote a program. The ‘tells’ are there. Just as there are many ways to say what’s on one’s mind, so there are multiple ways to order a computer to produce the desired results. I find that fascinating.

    Kudos to you on your work, Bog. Now if only I could understand teenagers!

    • Ken, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. About “linguistic programming analysis”: you’re right, computer programming is not my field. What I do know is that “linguistic programming analysis” is far beyond writing basic computer programs. My linguistic knowledge goes only as far as “cognitive linguistics” and “deep semiotic” systems. If you are not sure about what I mean by “deep semiotics” here is an article I published on the topic:

      Language as a Deep Semiotic System and Fluid Intelligence in Language Proficiency
      http://grammargraph.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/language-as-a-deep-semiotic-system-and-fluid-intelligence-in-language-proficiency/

      • Yes, Ken, bography can explain to you, with his superior linguistic intellect, how when G-d wrote “G-d is not a man”, that He really meant that He is for sure one thing: a man! And, making the surreal even more bizarre, you can heartily agree with him that such quite computes.

  2. Pingback: Analysis of the Modern Evangelical Mind and the Lost Art of Boxing « OneDaringJew

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