Céline of Naked Translations has an amusing post about her difficulties trying to translate English into French and being told that her versions are too… French:

Coordinator: “Please write your ideas on the flip-chart.”
Céline: “Veuillez noter vos idées sur le… le…”

What’s flip-chart in French?? Don’t panic, don’t panic.

“Le… le…”

19 pairs of eyes are on me. I can feel drops of sweat slowing running down my cold forehead.

“Le… le…”

“TABLEAU DE CONFÉRENCE!”, I finally blurt out, a bit too loudly. I’m sure I can hear a crowd cheering and chanting my name in the distance.

French client: “Tableau de conférence? C’est marrant, nous on dit paperboard.” (That’s funny, we say paperboard).

I tell you, next time I can’t think of the proper way of saying something in French, I’ll just come out with a ridiculous made-up English word instead of risking brain meltdown.

There’s also a good story about translating “environmental stewardship,” and some thoughts on context.


  1. I’m sure I remember “le flip chart”, but for obvious reason this is seen as barbaric by anyone over 30.

  2. My Central American husband could never be confused with a native speaker of English. Nevertheless, there are certain expressions, mostly related to computers and technology, that he can’t say in Spanish. His own Spanish lexicon for those terms is completely blank. And the words come out in English.
    There are American office buildings being cleaned right now by Central American peasants, who talk about “pasando el vakun en la carpeta.” Maybe vacuum cleaners are really called aspiradoras in Spanish and a carpet is una alfombra. But these speakers have learned these concepts in English in the States and not in their native Spanish. Most have never seen a vacuum cleaner until they arrived in the States.
    What does this have to do with the above post, the French language and its speakers? It’s just so nice to deal with Spanish speakers instead of the uptight, coincé French. They’re not all worried about their language being polluted by English.

  3. Yes, Toby, the Latin American attitude is more relaxing and more practical I’ve seen these English loan words in Mexican or other Latin American Spanish.
    “Vivimos en un ‘trailer'” (We live in a trailer) Here trailer comes out sounding like try-lehr.
    “Aqui tienes buena chanza de cupar un trabajo.”(Here you have a good chance of getting a job.) The z is a thin s sound.
    My mother was horrified to hear her Nicaraguan friend say to her,”Echale la laca,” for “Lock the (car) door.”
    My mother and my alma mater had both inculcated in me the attitude that the castellano of the Real Academia was what I should learn and preserve. It took me years to shake out of my orthodox frame of mind. I regret not having been more flexible. These days I’m learning more of the Mexican and Guatemalan Spanish.

  4. Michael Farris says

    It works both ways. As a native speaker teacher of English in Poland, I’m constantly disappointing my Polish colleagues who want nice English words for various aspects of Polish (esp. university) reality that I tend to just use the Polish word for. Or occasionally, I’ll use an English cognate, though the English meaning is different.
    “A zaoczne student came by looking for you because she needs your zaliczenie and she thought you have dyżur now. She left her index on the middle shelf of the szafa. She asked you to leave it in the sekretariat.”
    An English native speaker who’s worked at a university for a semester has no trouble understanding that even if they don’t know much Polish.
    sort of translation:
    “An extramural/weekend student came by looking for you because she needs your signature that she passed your course and she thought you have duty/office hours now. She left her student transcript book on the middle shelf of the cupbboard/wardrobe. She asked you to leave it in the department/secretary’s office.”

  5. I liked the above example of “trailer” but have only heard it in the following “mi hermano maneja un trailer”, using the pronunciation noted. But then again, I know no Spanish speaker who happens to live in a trailer, as I live in a city. But a lot of people live in un beismen.
    How do you refer to things new to you in your native language, such as a trailer, a huge 12 wheeler or a basement? Or even a six-pack? It appears, that even cross-culurally, it is done in an evenly minimally acquired second language.

  6. I’ve been told that Chicago Polish for basement is “bismentuv”.
    Or at least, it was during the second millennium when I heard that story in my youth.

  7. It reminds me of our Italian neighours in Australia, pineapple growers. They always referred to ‘pineapples’ in Italian as ‘pineapples’, never as ‘ananas’ in the proper Italian way.

  8. michael farris says

    that might be bejsmentów, but that would be genitive plural, singular would be bejsment (or conceivably bisment but the ej is easy enough for Polish speakers (though many might confuse it and aj).
    That’s a borrowing I don’t like since the Polish word piwnica is so nice and evocative (and sounds like it means ‘beer area’)

  9. i just got invited to a “fooding” here in france. it’s where you go and uhm, taste food.
    un fooding.
    they use parking and shopping in spite of j.lang, so why not fooding?

  10. I recall that a blow dry in a beauty salon in France(anyone recall when they were called beauty parlors in the States?)was referred to as un brushing. English is creeping in all over the place into French. And my comment to that is eh alors?

  11. At a french beach I once heard a woman saying “après-sun” pronouncing it like “soen” (like schön in german). I think that’s really funny isn’t it.

  12. As a Québécois and french speaker, there are some points of view a read here that are ridiculous, so to say, about the use of a language.
    It’s obvious that without the proper education, you’ll lack some knowledge, concepts, and words. Put yourself then in a foreign environment, you’ll obviously use the “second language” words in your own first language.
    As for uptight coincé french speaker, you should know better. Those French, in Paris above all, don’t even have a real language anymore. They use simglish words, words that seem to be english that are not. Are they uptight? Not at all, they are without a proper tool of communication. Some of them don’t even know french words like commanditaire, prefering to use sponsor, and this is just one exemple out of many more. Think about it, they don’t go jogging, they go “footing”… I pity them.
    So, who’s more uptight, an english speaker that only knows his own language, or someone who knows 2 or more languages that tries to cherish all of them? That is the right question.
    When I speak in english, I don’t use french words just because I know them, I won’t be understood anyway. When I speak in french, it’s the same. As a language, french is my first tool, my best way to communicate, and that’s the end of it. If you don’t respect and maintain your car, it will break down apart. If you throw garbage down the sink hole, it will clog.
    Languages are communication tools, if you don’t keep them into a proper “operating state”, they will brak down apart. That goes for le français, el espanol, even english. The latinized world, aka the Romain Empire, is a good exemple. Even after 5 century of “latinization”, it didn’t take long to have many far-apart dialects in the ancient Romain Emprire territory. Of course, education has a lot to do with it, so have knowledge and respect of that knowledge.

  13. I wanted to add a quote…
    “Quand tu possèdes les mots, tu possèdes le monde”
    “When you possess the words, you possess the world”

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