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.