Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Tailored to your audience

"Hello," I say to the 6-year-old French boy.
"Hello! How are you?"
"I'm good. And how are you?"
Shy, silent stare.
"Are you good, too?"
"What did you want to ask me?"
" you want to play with me?"
"Sure! What should we play?"
Mulling, and more mulling.
"Do you want to play Uno? Or foosball? Or something else?"
Eyes light up.
"A match!"
"Foosball, then? A foosball match?"
Vigorous nodding.
"Okay! Let's go!"

"What's up?" I ask his 7-year-old brother.
"Do you know the game that you play on the computer, it's called cup-eet."
"Cup Eat? A cup, like a glass that you drink out of?"
"NO! CUP! Like a police!"
"Oh, a cop," I emphasize. "Cop is a policeman, cup is a glass you drink from."
"Cop...mais je peux pas le dire en anglais, moi..."
"Yes, you can figure it out in English. You figured out how to say 'cop' to me by saying 'police,' you can figure other stuff out, too..."

"Howdy, pardner," I drawl to their 12-year-old brother, who picks up accents astonishingly quickly. Scarily fast, even.
Giggles. "Caooooowww," he tries.
I giggle, too.
"Oh, remember, you told me you'd do a Scottish accent, too."
"Haha, no, I said I'd find you an example of a Scottish accent. That one, I can't do."
"But what does it sound like?"
"Dude, I can't explain it."
"Do a British accent again."
"Oh yes," I quip, pinkie in the air, "this is the accent of the Brits and the BBC newscasters, and Monty Python and all the rest..."
"Yep, that's it." Now if only you'd stop imitating your parents' French-accented English so well...

As for the oldest, their 13-year-old brother, he and I sit in silence. He's a teen, and he's trying to figure out how to deal with that. But if I'm patient enough, I can earn his respect. And it doesn't take long. By the time we reach the theatre, we've bonded over "hiding from the old people," since we're the two youngest there by a couple decades. Then, we're spies. Then, he steals my cookies, my pen, my glasses -- and always gives them back, so long as I let him have his fun. And then whole night has been in English, which he struggles with as much as his identity. This is a good thing.


You just have to know who you're talking to, who you're writing for. Talk to them like you would a small child or a teen, write to them like you would your best friend or that college professor you were terrified of. And in translation, it's almost easier. The decision has already been made for you -- you just have to figure out which audience the author was writing for, what kind of audience that corresponds to in your own tongue and culture, and write appropriately.

[From the Archives] Tutoyer

To address someone with the informal "you" One of the most confusing things about conversational French is figuring out whether to address someone with the formal (and/or plural) "vous" or the informal and/or familiar "tu."  Generally speaking, you use "vous" when you don't know someone, or when you're addressing someone older or of higher authority than you, or when you just want to show respect to someone; you use "tu" when you're familiar with someone, or when you're speaking to someone of your age or younger.  Families differ on if kids should tutoient or vouvoient their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, etc.

That being said, my first day at school was made much more comfortable by the mandate that all teachers and staff members addressed each other as "tu," even if you didn't know the other person that well.  It's like a little family, a team; it made me feel very welcome.  On the flip side, I always address my landlords as "vous," even though they've invited me to their house for multiple meals -- what's nice is that they also address me as "vous."  Business arrangement first and foremost, I guess.

The cool thing is when these forms of addressing people start to shift.  A "vous" to "tu" shift (it never happens the other way around) means friendship, or at the very least, familiarity.  I've gotten permission to tutoie Bernard, who runs the bookstore, who I've spent a lot of time with.  Just today, the boulanger (bread man) who comes around to our neighborhood said that I could of course tutoie him.  I'm pretty sure I'm a few weeks away from permission from the sausage man at market and the madame who runs the grocery store to tutoie them.  I may not be able to fit in seamlessly to French life, but I'm becoming accepted by those who live and own that life.

On a side note: incidentally, I'm apparently not only becoming accepted by, but attractive to the French, as well.  At least the males of the species.  My CE2s (3rd graders) made a big deal about two of the boys in the class having crushes on me.  Fortunately, they're 3rd grade crushes.  I think I can handle that.  What I wasn't prepared to handle were the advances of a couple boys my age, maybe a bit younger, maybe a bit older (I can never tell with the French), outside a bar at the edge of town.  They're young, immature, they didn't quite know what they were truly attempting.  I rebuffed their advances not only in French, but like the French do, with a certain aloofness and gentle snide comments (which may not make sense until you hear some native speakers go at it).  My French must be getting pretty good...