Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reading Lolita in Paris: A reminder that some people master language better than others

For those who aspire to learn several languages within their lifetime, it can be humbling to read Nabokov. The immensely talented Russian author not only supplied us with a number of classics, but at least one of them – Lolita – he wrote in English first before translating it back into his mother tongue. Many Anglophones must admit – perhaps grudgingly – that the writer’s extensive English vocabulary expanded largely beyond their own grasp of their native language.

In Paris, there are a number of Anglophone archetypes: those who don’t bother to learn French at all, no matter how long they have lived here; those whose working knowledge of the language enables them to get by; those whose skills are minimal, but who exhibit the irritating trait of (usually wrongly) correcting everyone else’s grammar; those who label themselves fluent when they really aren’t; those who are fluent, but who are much too critical of themselves to say so, and; those who are fluent, admit to being so, and who possess the envious ability to speak in perfect sentences with little or no accent at all.

What category one falls under depends on several factors, including education, whether or not one boasts an ear for languages and a willingness to read, listen…and practice, practice, practice. It’s an ongoing journey that covers its peaks and valleys, and even the most skilled multi-lingual individuals experience days when all that work seems to have amounted to nothing…usually when one gets tongue-tied during the simplest tasks, such as ordering a baguette.

And everyone, at some point or another, experiences a baffling phenomenon: the loss of their native vocabulary.

This isn’t a matter of employing franglais – that blending of French and English that produces a sort of spontaneous dialect that is often exclusive to those conversing in that very moment. Nor is it an exercise in pretense (‘…that film was – how do you say? – so very enlightening…’) Instead, it’s a byproduct of the learning process: when one’s level in French reaches a certain plateau, one’s grasp of English heads south.

To compensate, many people use the method they applied when learning to speak en français: when all else fails, translate between the two languages directly, word for word. This results in some amusing phrasing, most notably when it’s directed at fellow English speakers who don’t speak French at all.

“Excuse me, would you please tell me how to get to Opéra?” a British tourist asked a certain journalist one sunny Saturday morning.

“Sure – you just turn right at the McDonald’s and keep going straight, and eventually you’ll fall on it.”

“I’ll what?”

“You’ll fall on it eventually. It’s about a 15-minute walk.”

It took said journalist a while to realize that the reason the woman had been eyeing her strangely was because in English, we don’t fall on famous buildings – we stumble upon them.

This language gap doesn’t just apply to directions, but descriptions as well.

“I like the 18th arrondissement, but there are certain parts of it that are a little hot,” observed a newcomer to Paris one crisp winter’s day. The speaker wasn’t referring to any unusual temperature-related discrepancies in the city’s northernmost quartier; she simply meant that when a neighborhood is chaud, it’s a bit seedy.

“You remember him – he was at L.’s going away party. He was the one who spent the entire night going on about the elections?” asked an American woman who works for a French financial firm.

“That tells me something,” responded her friend, signaling that yes, the guy sounded familiar, or oui, ça me dit quelque chose.

While we can’t all aspire to be Nabokov, and only a small percentage of us will be able to master several languages flawlessly, one thing is for certain: these little errors hold a certain charm, and any time that anyone attempts cross-cultural communication, there is little harm in a few details being – how do you say? – lost in translation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Avoiding Céline Dion: The trouble with bilingualism is you can’t always hear what you want

Due to their proximity to the U.S. border, Canadian celebrities have always had an unusual place in the star system: on their home turf, no one except their compatriots knows who they are, but the minute they cross the frontier and reap a little bit of success, not only does the American celebrity machine embrace them…it claims them as its own.

As a result, there is an extensive list of famous Canadians who have been, figuratively at least, stripped of their nationality and granted a sort of informal U.S. citizenship: Alanis Morisette, Neil Young, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves and Pamela Anderson, to name a few. While some have sought U.S. citizenship out-and-out (a number of years ago, actor/comedian Jim Carrey was said to have applied for it), most of these stars remain Canadian to themselves and their fans up north, and American for the rest of the world.

Living in France, this becomes extremely apparent: the majority of the celebrities that the French identify as being Canadian come from Quebec, with their Anglophone Canadian counterparts being lumped in with the Americans. Perhaps this is poetic justice: many Anglophone Canadians have little insight on the who’s who of the Quebecois celebrity circuit, partly because it doesn’t heavily target English-speaking Canada, and partly because sadly, many Anglophone Canadians couldn’t care less. Even so, this identity theft tends to ruffle Canadian feathers, and the more cynical among us have been known to observe, fairly or not, that our cousins to the south are great at claiming the best for themselves.

Except when it comes to Céline Dion.

Near, far, wherever you are, it’s made clear that this internationally renowned diva is Canadian, through and through. Even with her immense fan base, enormous success in the United States, heavy radio rotation, and soaring, (some would say) over-produced, reverberating vibrato, no one ever makes the mistake of labeling her American. Blame it on her Quebecois roots (that accent just doesn’t exist anywhere else), or the singer’s defiant emphasis on her own heritage, but to the rest of the world, Céline Dion is as Canadian as igloos, maple syrup and Labatt 50 beer (that’s Labatt cinquante for you neophytes).

This is good or bad news, depending on your taste in music, but in France, one thing is for certain: if you think you can escape hearing sappy love songs à la canadienne, you’ve got it all wrong. Here, the radio stations don’t just broadcast the artist’s English catalog…thanks to her bilingualism, Dion records a significant number of tracks en français, and there isn’t a supermarket in Paris that refuses to air these chefs-d’oeuvres.

Makes one think twice before bragging about the nationality of one of Canada’s stars.