Lost and Found in Translation
First things first – I’m American. It’s important information, I promise. Moving right along, a friend of mine once spent some time in France as an exchange student, and I decided this was the perfect time to visit her in Montpelier so I could take advantage of her free couch and proximity to other European cities. I’d never been before, but I was well acquainted with stories passed down from pop-culture about French rudeness and their attitudes toward Americans. But I knew it was unfair to make assumptions that all people on both sides felt and acted this way.
Before I left, I was bombarded with “facts” about France from friends and family who passed along these clichés like gospel truth. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before: French culture is less conservative than American culture about sex and nudity; French people hold themselves and their country to a high standard; French people are rude. But for all this talk of their sophistication and cultural differences, I still left the U.S. hoping that the biggest point of contention between our two countries would be that we Americans had changed French fries to “freedom fries” in protest.
I received an important lesson in the problems of stereotyping, as often happens, when I was drunk on wine and getting philosophical at a bar. My friend invited me to attend a play with her class about famous playwrights. It was a Friday night, which sucked. But like most things in France there was wine, so that evened everything out. I was imagining a night of historical re-enactments about Marlow, Ibsen, and Moliere. What we witnessed instead was some loose collection of historical scenes thrown together and acted out by people wearing massive strap-ons the entire time. I’m an English major – I don’t remember any mention of dildos in Shakespeare. The whole group quickly decided that the best way to wash what we just witnessed from our minds was to get totally obliterated at the nearest bar.
So that’s myth one debunked: Even French people get uncomfortable around too many exaggerated cod pieces.
We picked a place at random based on the criteria that they had alcohol, and proceeded to get sloshed on wine and beer. As I was sitting at the bar, a French student came and sat next to me. She said she needed to ask me something, something that had been bugging her for a while, and she was hoping to get a serious answer. I indicated she should proceed and leaned in expectantly.
“What is a motherfucker?”
No, really: she wanted to know what, exactly, is a motherfucker. And where did this term come from? I had reached that point in my drinking where I stopped questioning whatever was going on around me. I blinked once to process her question, and then realised that although I wasn’t sure I currently had the skills or the mental capacity to explain to her the idiosyncrasies of English while translating them into French, dammit – I would certainly try. What I came up with was this: “Well, literally it is someone who fucks mothers.”
I then pulled a cocktail napkin over and proceeded to diagram several sentences using some iteration of “motherfucker” as a noun, an adjective, an exclamation, and whatever else I could think of. She sat next to me the entire time, looking as serious as if she were talking with her professor about a thesis paper. I felt like I’d suddenly been handed an opportunity to bring foreign obscenities to a fresh audience. Yes, young grasshopper, I can teach you things; there’s a whole world out there beyond “motherfucker”.
So that’s myth two debunked: No one has such high standards that they can’t stoop to ask about how to up their swearing game.
She and I sat at the bar, getting as creative as we could with our swear words and giggling like little kids. I realised I was playing with fire when she and her friends kept asking each other to be fuck buddies for the rest of the night, but I felt like I’d helped break down a wall. My first experience with French people was so very “French” – we drank, we swore, we talked about fucking. But really, it was no different than what happened at bars in America or anywhere else.
That entire night was an education. She and her friends learned the proper place of “I shit you not” in everyday conversation, and I learned that there is no wrong time for a well-placed putain. I also learned to make a rude gesture by sticking the thumb and index finger together to make a circle with the three remaining fingers upright. This is actually a gesture that means ‘OK’ in the U.S., and that’s when it hit me. There are huge differences between U.S. and French culture, and things get lost in translation.
So that’s myth three debunked: Perhaps stereotypes about French rudeness stem from simple misinterpretations, especially if you only listen to things that filter down to you from others.
If you want to learn what people are like, you need to talk to them – maybe about more than just swear words, but not necessarily. You will learn so many useful things, and you’ll appreciate the similarities more. You’ll also learn that Uranus is just as funny in French as it is in English. I shit you not.