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  • Marc Johnson

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

Ninth in a series from Europe…


The French are famous, or depending upon your point of view notorious, for their attempts to protect the integrity of the French language. In the 1980’s then-French Minister of Culture Jack Lang made protecting French culture and language from the onslaught of globalized western words a national priority. Regularly the French single out words like walkman, prime time and the new Twitter word hashtag as having no place in the French vocabulary.

Still, the impact of Western culture and its hip-hop vocabulary is seeping in around the edges in France, but you have a sense the French won’t give in to it easily. You also won’t find much debate in France about “French as a second language.” There is one language in France – French. American conservatives and English language purists who insist that the United States would be better off with an “official language” can agree at least on that much with the very proper French.

So, where does that leave an American in Paris? An American whose French pretty much begins and ends with please – merci – and ordering a glass of red wine – vin rouge, s’il vous plait. It has been a pleasant surprise that through careful observation and close listening one can begin to pick up the meaning of many things articulated in the elegant French language. The announcements on the Paris Metro are particularly helpful. Still a non-French speaking American in Paris must depend on the universal language of signs and, of course, skillful translation as he hopes that the necessary can become the routine even when language is a barrier.

The striding Frenchman on the grass with the slash makes it pretty clear – don’t walk on the grass, stupid. These kinds of signs are a type of universal language, but I have also found that not everything translates quite so well or so obviously. Consider this

I love the Monet, the Renoir, the Pizarro and can almost convince myself I understand enough of their brilliance to appreciate what they produced when they changed the art world forever, but I wonder about this sign.

I’m not sure whether if points to a place where you get your laundry done while lying down, or maybe it signals a baby changing station. There are lots of babies here. I’m pretty clear that whatever it is can be found downstairs.

The signs in the great Paris park, the Jardin de Luxembourg, have clearly been designed with unknowing English-speakers in mind.

This sign at the Church La Madeleine, a church originally built to celebrate the success of Napoleon’s army and, perhaps for that reason, a church that looks more like a Greek temple than a typical Roman or Gothic cathedral, seems to congratulate the English-speaker for understanding the sign. I appreciate the thought.


I don’t know about you, but when I think sushi I have trouble conjuring up the bleak geography and high desert feel of Nevada. I know the state really should be better know for its vast coastline, fresh seafood processing and as a haven for those who gamble that the fish today is really, really fresh, but we know that is not the image. Maybe the restaurant is attempting to play off the gaming reputation of The Silver State, but then again I’m just not into gambling with my uncooked fish.

Sushi Nevada as a concept may just be yesterday’s California roll, but then again the restaurant does have 104 “likes” on Facebook.

It has been said that when the American President Woodrow Wilson came to Paris in 1919 to negotiate what became the Treaty of Versailles, the French took great exception to the fact that much of the necessary diplomacy was conducted in English, rather than in the then-universal language of foreign affairs – French. The French have been fighting a rear guard action over language ever since.

The British actor and writer Stephen Fry has written that the English language evolved in messy and unpredictable ways with “military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses” mingled at every turn.Yet, he says, the “French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.”

As the French might say: Thank you for your comprehension. Merci beaucoup.

And Happy Independence Day.

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