Monday, February 07, 2005



It just kind of popped out. It was involuntary, a nervous reaction really, kind of like I had Tourette's or something. And it certainly came out louder than I would have hoped, since there had been a loud action scene that had gone suddenly quiet. The guy in front stirred and my husband looked at me in slight horror and turned an interesting shade of red that shone through the dark.

We were in the middle of watching Aviator the biopic about Howard Hughes that was just released in France. Like all good expats, we scan the listings for the movies "en VO" or in the original version which means they are shown in the original language and subtitled in French. This is a much more pleasant way to watch a movie even though we can basically understand the French. While there may be nuances "Lost in Translation," there is more that is lost in dubbing. The movie has a dead feeling, the mouths aren't in sync with the words and George Clooney just does not sound like that.

Plus there are many side benefits to sub-titles. If you are a good reader you can figure out what is going to happen even before it is said. "And the murderer is" pause pause pause "the Butler!" On the screen it is written "And the murderer is... the Butler." You hear the idiom in English and you can see it on the screen. You get to learn phrases, like as coquette noted, that feeling blue is "avoir le cafard" or to have the cockroach. And it is always the same feeling. The light goes on in your head and that internal voice says, "OOOooooh, the slang word for eating, is bouffe! Hahahaha!"

So, I had one of those little moments the other night. The light went off, but perhaps it was a little too shocking or maybe funny, and the little internal voice went unfortunately external.

When the movie was over and I wanted to engage in the thumbs up thumbs down post mortem*, my husband was busy scanning the people sitting near us. As we were walking out, he turned to me and said, "Geez, you sounded like a thirteen year old boy screaming out the word 'tits' with such glee."

For what it is worth, I didn't scream.

* Aviator: Thumbs up, It was beautifully filmed but it didn't match the hype. While playing a guy who slips into madness is Oscars bait, Leo DiCaprio just looked like he was trying too hard. And does Scorcese know an editing man?

-- said Auntie M in Paris
4:08 PM



Wow. This blog is becoming "R" rated. I might have to put a warning on the link I have provided on my site so none of my wholesome readers become offended.

So, funny about this, though. I just saw "Aviator" last night and I had the same reaction as you. I don't know what that says about either you or I. I, also, learned a slang term from the movie "Closer" which was basically one big conversation about s-e-x.

I am not a fan of DiCaprio, at all. But, I really enjoyed his performance. I thought Kate Blanchett was incredible (and she always is). Overall, I really enjoyed the film. But, do French people not laugh at movies. I thought there were some pretty funny scenes and I was laughing all by myself. Or maybe I just have a weird sense of humor.


# posted by Anonymous : 4:43 PM  

Hi - great blog...

Whilst I find that watching subtitled films all the time a little tiring after a while (I am compelled to read the subtitles even if I understand the soundtrack) I still swear it's one of the best ways to learn extra vocab.

I have to confess though that MTV France is still my best insight into slang/argot. Shows like Dismissed really DO have educational value!

# posted by L'Oiseau : 5:27 PM  

Jason, I agree! I laughed out loud at a few of the scenes in Aviator and I laughed alone. Maybe something is lost in translation. Sometimes I know that the French won't understand... like when we saw Starsky and Hutch. Some things they referenced were so funny, but you really had to grow up in the US to appreciate them.
L'oiseau, Thank you. I love those MTV shows. My favorite right now is Pimp My Ride. I'll have to take a better look at the subtitles in the future, but I have a hard enough time keeping up with the English!

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 5:44 PM  

When I first saw the word, "nichons", I had to look it up in my big French-English dictionary. Sometimes, I wish the big dictionary could fit in my purse! I've only seen one movie since our arrival in Paris (Oceans 12), but we just found a babysitter, so we're hoping to see more movies at the cinema.

# posted by Oz : 6:10 PM  

Hi Auntie –

Subtitles can be great fun. I shall share with you one of the better subtitling jobs I have ever seen. Note that by "better" I mean the "most laughably erroneous", of course. (smile)

It was several years ago (more than 10), on the French cable TV channel, "Planète", which is devoted exclusively to documentaries. Only documentaries - nothing but documentaries. One evening I was zapping and ran into a program which caught my attention. Made in the early 1980s, it dealt with the former British Empire and was English made.

Interspersed with the old grainy film footage were interviews with people still alive at that time, who had known the Raj firsthand, those who had made the Empire. The filmmakers had travelled to India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and interviewed a handful of very old English ladies, who had gone out to the colonies with their husbands around WW1 and stayed on after the end of Empire. All of these ladies – most over 80 years old - were pretty chirpy and bright-eyed, with their wits very much about them. While the old film clips were dubbed with French voices, the interviews with the ladies were subtitled. They were, for want of a better term, somewhat Kiplingesque, to say the least.

Bon, alors … a lady living in India, up in one of the hill towns near Darjeeling, was interviewed. I shall reproduce what I recall to this day from one particular exchange (viewed several times in reruns).

After a short conversation about servants and housing, the interview turned to recreation. From motor vehicles and sports, it then moved on to "shooting" (which we in the US term "hunting", but by which Brits of that era mean shooting partridges and pheasants and other game. What the Brits call "hunting" we call "riding to hounds", "la chasse à courre". Sorry, I digress.) It then continued on to "big game".

EN (English Narrator): So tell us about shooting tigers … was it exciting ?
ENS (English Narrator, Subtitled): Parlez-nous de la chasse aux tigres. C'était excitant ?

OL (Old Lady): Oh, we always had a cracking good time.
OLS (Old Lady, Subtitled): Oui, on s'amusait beaucoup.

OL: I remember one particular hunt.
OLS: Je me souviens d'une chasse, un jour.

OL: We woke up early one morning …
OLS: On s'est levé un beau matin …

OL: and went to the spot where we had attached the bait.
OLS : et nous sommes allés là où on avait attaché l'appât.

OL: There was a large tree in a clearing.
OLS: Il y avait un arbre dans une clairière.

OL: As usual, we had attached …
OLS: Comme d'habitude, on avait attaché …

OL: a kid to the tree …
OLS: un enfant à l'arbre …

OL: to attract a tiger.
OLS: pour attirer un tigre.

I dropped my remote control and began laughing. Never, but never, had I ever seen such an example of mistranslation. (For those reading this who are not native English speakers, note that the word "kid" is also "un chevreau", i.e. a young goat. Goats were (still are ?) used as bait for tigers. We Americans frequently use the expression "to handle with kid gloves", meaning "handle in a delicate and careful manner".)

Moreover, when one thinks this over a bit, after the smiles and laughter have ceased … we all know that the French and the English are hereditary enemies and that they have frequent cultural misunderstandings … but this ?! Using a child to bait a tiger ?! A (badly paid student ?) French subtitler, in all seriousness, saw nothing amiss in writing such a sentence ?! What was going through her/his mind ? That "anything goes with those English" (ah, les anglais !) ? The producer(s) let this through ? No one saw anything abnormal (!) about using a child to bait a tiger ?!

Conclusion 1: Better to learn the original language, whatever it is.
Conclusion 2: Cultural Europe will not be built tomorrow, that's for sure. (smile)

Hi Jason -

>>But, do French people not laugh at movies.

Oh, but they do – they just don't laugh in the same places we Americans do, nor in the same movies. (smile)

Give it a try: go to a comedy film. See it once for yourself, to love or to hate. Then stay for a second showing and watch the audience. Watch where they laugh. Go to several other comedy films and do the same thing. You'll see that the French sense of humor pops up at different places than ours. A guaranteed laugh, from my experience (gained years ago when a poor student sheltered in warm cinemas during a very cold winter): every time a chimpanzee, or an ape, appears on screen, for whatever reason, the French laugh. I haven't figured out why to this day, even after having discussed this at length with my French family.


# posted by L'Amerloque : 6:40 PM  

Oh Auntie M, thanks for the laugh. Just when I thought I was going to have to go look it up.


# posted by Anonymous : 10:49 PM  

In the grand Oscar tradition of honoring filmakers for past work, The Aviator is being honored because they snubbed "Gangs of New York" and awarded Oscars to Chicago and The Pianist instead.

Will totally agree that Leo's Performance was forced and it's a total vanity project for himself. By the end he came off doing his best Ross Perot imitation. Giamitti's showing in Sideways, Depp in Finding Neverland and Cheadle in Hotel Rowanda were all better.

the brother-in-law

# posted by Anonymous : 5:45 PM  

Oz, I tried to look up 'nichons' in a couple of dictionaries and it wasn't there. Finally found it in one book. Glad you've found a babysitter. It makes life a lot easier.
L'A, That example you gave about the goat/kid was so interesting. I can't imagine a translator making that error by accident! When I was at the science museum the other day, in a normal sentence there was the word 'bullshit.' It didn't make sense in the sentence and I didn't have time to see what the original sentence was in French, but there was no way that someone could have made an honest mistake on that one.
Kiki, I was hoping to build the suspense!
BIL, I would like to see Hotel Rwanda. How was it?

# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 9:50 PM  

Hi Auntie –

>>When I was at the science museum the other day,
>>in a normal sentence there was the word 'bullshit.'
>>It didn't make sense in the sentence and I didn't
>>have time to see what the original sentence was
>>in French, but there was no way that someone
>>could have made an honest mistake on that one.

(smile) The mistake might simply have been a question of register. If the original French were "connerie" or "foutaise", a French native speaker might have translated into "bullsh*t" in (relatively) good faith.

I don't want to clutter up this family-oriented blog with discussions of "sh*t" and other French and English swearwords, (smile) but … even though the dictionaries say that "merde" in Franch is equivalent to "sh*t" in English, nothing can be further from the truth, in my experience. One might hear a très-comme-il-faut, BCBG French matron say "Merde !" quite audibly in a given context (such as, say, spilling a drink at a party) and no French person would really raise an eyebrow (although "Zut" or "Mince" would be OK, too). If a similar thing happened in a US context, i.e., an American matron saying an audible "Sh*t !" in the same situation, eyebrows would indeed be raised ! I've seen it happen several times - the French native speaker coming out with "sh*t" in the wrong situation.


# posted by L'Amerloque : 7:14 PM  

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