Do birds hide to die?

Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?

Le soir, au coin du feu, j’ai pensé bien des fois
À la mort d’un oiseau, quelque part, dans les bois.
Pendant les tristes jours de l’hiver monotone,
Les pauvres nids déserts, les nids qu’on abandonne,
Se balancent au vent sur un ciel gris de fer.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux doivent mourir l’hiver !
Pourtant, lorsque viendra le temps des violettes,
Nous ne trouverons pas leurs délicats squelettes
Dans le gazon d’avril, où nous irons courir.
Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?


I heard this short poem on the radio the other day during a bird-themed segment. It’s by the French 19th century poet and novelist François Copée, who was known as “the poet of the humble”. The poem is indeed humble, almost child-like in its sentiment and expression, but it was somehow endearing, and I wondered if I would bring that across in an English translation.

So first here’s the literal, non-rhymed, clunky version:


Do birds hide to die?

At night, by the fire, I’ve many times thought
About a bird dying in the forest somewhere.
During the sad, monotonous winter days,
The poor, abandoned nests
Sway in the winds of an icy grey sky.
Oh! How the birds must die in winter!
Yet when the time of violets comes,
We don’t find their delicate skeletons
In the April grasses through which we run.
Do birds hide to die?


Even in this simple version I had to change a few things, namely swapping the future for the present tense when talking about the arrival of Spring. Translating the poem in this literal manner skews the length of the lines and breaks the poem’s rhythm; however, even in the French the lines vary between 10 and 12 syllables, with no clear pattern. Reading this English translation also highlights certain flaws in the original, like the phrase “through which we run” which comes across as a little odd, probably just used just to rhyme “courir” (run) with “mourir” (die). Similarly, “fer” (iron) in “le ciel gris de fer” (literally “the iron grey sky”), is used in order to rhyme with “hiver” (winter). In my version, this image becomes “an icy grey sky”. As I said, not a hugely complex poem this one.

So then I went on to write a couple of rhyming versions in which I get to play around a lot more with the sound and meaning so as to bring across the same tone and imitate the AABBCC rhyme scheme. Like in the French, I stuck to simple rhymes, doing away with vocabulary like “monotonous” and “skeletons” (which, again, mainly seemed to be used to accommodate the rhyme scheme) in favour of the more straight-forward “long” and “bones”.


I had a few options to consider. In lines 1-2, do I ponder by the fire about the birds over yonder, or do I think by the fire at night about the birds dying out of sight? In lines 5-6, do many birds die in the icy grey sky, or is their fate foretold as they die in the cold? I chose the second option in both cases. First, because I prefer to keep the image of the forest/woods, rather than just having the birds dying “out there over yonder” (plus this is a bit of a clichéd expression). Secondly, because I have to rhyme with “die” in the last line, so I’d rather not rhyme with it twice in a 10-line poem.

The rhythm was not always easy to get right. I hesitated over the second line: “Of a bird dead, in the woods, out of sight” / “Of a woodland bird dying, out there, out of sight” / “Of a bird dying, out there, out of sight”. I wanted to keep the image of a wood/forest in there somehow and have the bird dying rather than already dead (RIP, bird).

To give the right rhythm and length to the 4th line, I used the adverb “abandonedly” to describe the swaying of the nest, rather than calling the nest itself “abandoned”. The meaning is not quite the same, I had to check – “abandonedly” can mean “unrestrainedly”, but it’s also a synonym for “helplessly”, which fits the image quite well.

The last line is much longer in the French version (“Est-ce que les oiseaux se cachent pour mourir ?” compared to “Do birds hide to die?”), so I had to pad it out in the English, meaning that the last line no longer reflects the title exactly.

I’m pretty happy with this final version and its run-on lines despite the changes I had to make to the sentence structure. And I’m quite fond of this very simple poem with its somewhat cheerless theme…


Do birds hide to die?

Many times have I thought, by the fire at night,
Of a woodland bird dying, out there, out of sight.
During those sorrowful, long winter days,
The small, empty nest abandonedly sways
In the harsh icy winds – their fate is foretold,
Oh, how many birds must die in the cold!
Yet when the season of Spring comes around,
Their fragile bones are not to be found
In the long April grasses –  I ask myself why?
Is it perhaps that birds hide to die?


Tomorrow, at dawn…

It’s been a while, but I recently read this poem by Victor Hugo and thought I’d give it a shot. Hugo wrote this piece about visiting his daughter’s grave after she drowned in the Seine river aged 19. It’s full of weighted melancholy and portrays his walk to her tombstone as a metaphor (in my mind) for his long walk through life towards his own grave, the only place where they may finally be reunited.

Demain, dès l’aube…

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


The flow of this poem is so natural that it took me multiple readings, during which I was just absorbed by the atmosphere and story, before I realised that there was actually a rhyming scheme. So I started by doing a quick translation of the poem, then another one just after without looking at the first, to see what variations I came up with, without thinking it through too much. Comparing these results left me with some interesting decisions to make:

Ln1.  when the first light whitewashes the fields, /  when the fields are white with dew,

Ln2-3. I’ll set off / I’ll leave / I’ll go

Ln4. I cannot stay far from you much longer. / No longer can I stay away from you.

Ln. 7 Alone, unknown, with bent back and crossed arms, / Lonesome, a stranger, crouched over with crossed arms,

Ln.8 Woeful, and the day for me will be as night. /  Filled with sadness, in day as in night.

Ln.9 I will see neither the gold of falling night, / I’ll not see the golden night descending,

Ln.10 Nor the far-off sails moving to the harbour, / Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,


The differences I got seem quite striking considering the few minutes that separated the writing of each.

Some of Hugo’s images are also ambiguous. What did he mean, for example, by “à l’heure où blanchit la campagne”? Is the countryside white with dew, with frost, with a morning fog? I kept trying to interpret this in my translations – “at the white hour of dawn”/ “when the fields are silver-white”, none of that was very satisfying. I ended up using “frosted white” here, but that’s just the image his words painted in my mind.

After merging the two to get an initial translation I liked, I tried out at a rhyming version, keeping the ABAB, CDCD rhyme scheme that Hugo has. This implied a little more liberty with the meaning and some added imagery, but not a whole lot in the end. Hugo rhymes “tombe/tombe” (“tomb/fall”) in the last verse, so I replicated the homonym with “grave/grave”. The other rhymes aren’t perfect, I’ve got a couple of “still/hills”, “feathers/heather” in there, and it feels more forced than in the French, but nevertheless I think I actually prefer my rhymed version. Here are both with the rhyming one on the right.



Tomorrow, at dawn
Tomorrow, at dawn, when the fields are frosted white,
I’ll set off. You see, I know that you await.
I’ll set off across the forest, I’ll set off across the mountain.
From you no longer can I stay away.

I’ll walk, my sight set upon my thoughts,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing,
Lonesome and unknown, with bent back and crossed arms,
Woeful, and the day for me will be as night.

I’ll not see the golden light of evening,
Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,
And when I get there, on your grave I’ll place
A bouquet of holly an heather in bloom.

At dawn tomorrow
At dawn tomorrow, when the fields are white and still,
I’ll go. I know that you await, you see.
I’ll go across the forests and the hills.
So long, so far from you I cannot be.

My eyes fixed upon my thoughts, I’ll roam,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, all empty and endless.
With curved back and crossed arms, unknown and alone,
My day as my night, filled with sorrow and sadness.

I’ll not look to the golden dusk so grave,
Nor to distant sails which float like feathers,
And when I get there, I’ll place upon your grave
A bunch of green holly and flowering heather.




Baudelaire’s Autumn Song

Winter is upon us, and it brought to mind Baudelaire’s poem ‘Chant d’automne’ in which he sadly waves goodbye to glorious summer days, and with morbid thoughts of death and gloom, awaits the winter months.

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

                                                     Charles Baudelaire

I came across a site with a number of English translations of the poem and as usual I found all the differences in them fascinating, so I picked out just the first verse above (which pretty much outlines what the whole thing is about – old Charles having a good moan about the cold, and death) to have a closer look at. Most of the translations respect the ABAB rhyming scheme (apart from Aggeler’s, that rebel), but they all find different ways to do it with more or less precision and success.

soon shall we plunge ‘neath winter’s icy pall;
farewell, bright fires of too-brief July!
even now I hear the knell funereal
of falling fire-logs in the court close by.

Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931

Soon into frozen shades, like leaves, we’ll tumble.
Adieu, short summer’s blaze, that shone to mock.
I hear already the funereal rumble
Of logs, as on the paving-stones they shock.

Roy Campbell, 1952

Soon we shall plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our short-lived summers!
Already I hear the dismal sound of firewood
Falling with a clatter on the courtyard pavements.

William Aggeler, 1954

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn.

Steven Monte

Shortly we will plunge within the frigid gloom,
Farewell swift summer brightness; all too short–
I hear already sounding with a death-like boom
The wood that falls upon the pavement of the court.

From 1909 (?)

‘Icy pall / July / funereal / close by’ I’m not too keen on as a rhyme, nor ‘shadows / be gone / below / the lawn’ for that matter. ‘gloom / short / boom / court’ is much snappier, as is ‘tumble / mock / rumble / shock’, but then I don’t think Baudelaire was really going for ‘snappy’ with this poem. So let’s see what the imagery offers us.

I love the image that the poet uses in the first line: ‘Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres’, and the translations have kept this idea of ‘plunging’ or ‘tumbling’ into the darkness of winter, the involuntary, frightening action of it. Other options for ‘plongerons’ might be ‘plummet’, ‘fall’, ‘stumble’… And as for ‘ténèbres’ we can choose from: darkness, obscurity, gloom, black, shadows, shades, murkiness, night, tenebrocity…

In the second line he speaks directly to summer, bidding her ‘Adieu’, and I like the idea of keeping this direct speech here, with a ‘farewell’, or really just keeping the French ‘Adieu’ as a little reminder of the poem’s origin. Then there’s the question of whether to keep that exclamation point or not… sometimes I feel they work better in French than in English for some reason, but let’s see…

In the third line he gets really gloomy: ‘J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres’. I don’t think it’s enough to just talk about ‘loud thuds’ or ‘dismal sound’, there has to be that introduction of the idea of death in there, although I’m not convinced that a ‘funeral knell’ is the right sound to compare to falling logs either…

There’s a last and hugely important element to consider when translating Baudelaire’s poetry, and it’s also a hard-to-define quality. His poems have a certain rhythm and balance to them which feel, when you read them out loud, as if you are being softly rocked by the words. In this verse, he paints a very dreary picture, but all the while lulling you gently with all those vowels. It’s a feeling that none of the translations I have come across have been able to reproduce in me.
So here it is again, Baudelaire’s version, take it all in before considering my offerings below.

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Soon we shall plunge into coldness and night
Adieu to the summer, the brief warmth of its glow.
I hear those loud thumpings as death now takes flight
Of firewood falling on the stone down below.

And here’s another version which I quite like but with an AABB rhyming scheme. Who knows, maybe over the Xmas holidays I’ll even tackle the whole poem in this unorthodox style!

Soon we will stumble into coldness and night,
Adieu, the short summer; farewell, the bright light!
Already the sound of the death-knell I hear
As fire-logs crash on the pavements so near.

November’s translation challenge

I’ve been reading some French children’s poetry and playing around with English translations. My current fixation is this little poem called ‘Chez Moi’ (‘At mine’) by René de Obaldia, a member of the very prestigious Académie française. It’s a fun piece tracing a show-off dialogue between a little girl and boy, each imagining greater wonders that happen at their house.

Chez moi

Chez moi, dit la petite fille
On élève un éléphant.
Le dimanche son oeil brille
Quand Papa le peint en blanc.

Chez moi, dit le petit garçon
On élève une tortue.
Elle chante des chansons
En latin et en laitue.

Chez moi, dit la petite fille
Notre vaisselle est en or,
Quand on mange des lentilles
On croit manger un trésor.

Chez moi, dit le petit garçon
Vit un empereur chinois.
Il dort sur le paillasson
Aussi bien qu’un Iroquois.

Iroquois! dit la petite fille.
Tu veux te moquer de moi.
Si je trouve mon aiguille,
Je vais te piquer le doigt!

So here are some things I had to consider when translating:
1. Whether to keep the strong rhythm with 7 syllables to each line and an accent on the last syllable.
2. Whether to stick to the rhyming pattern ABAB structure throughout.
3. Whether to stick to the same images and inventions or rather to use the basic idea and do some imaginings of my own whilst sticking to the same rhythm as the French.

I soon realised that the French language has a particular capacity to make words fit into different numbers of syllables. So the word ‘une’ will be 1 syllable when spoken in normal conversation, but most often pronounced as 2 syllables ‘u-ne’ in poetry. ‘Petite’ will similarly be either 2 or three syllables long. In general, the silent ‘e’ at the end of words will become an audible schwa if followed by a word starting with a consonant, thereby adding a syllable to the line. At least that was a solid rule in Classic French poetry which has since lost its absolute nature to become more of an option than a necessity.

The first line in this poem, ‘Chez moi, dit la petite fille’, can be pronounced with 7, 8 or 9 syllables depending on whether we sound the last ‘e’ on the last two words. My instinct was to consider it a 7-syllable line as are all the others. The exception being the 1st line of the last verse: ‘Iroquois! dit la petite fille‘, which becomes an 8-syllable line if the same sound conventions are used, or which can become a 7-syllable line if the word ‘petite’ is pronounced in a truncated way as it very often is in everyday speech, rendering a 1-syllable ‘p’tite’. This is also what needs to happen to the ‘petit’ in ‘petit garçon’ if it is to stick to the 7-syllable/line rule. In essence, you can read this poem in French as either a 7-7-7-7 or 8-7-7-7 syllable poem.

Another tricky aspect when translating into English is that whereas in French the accent is always on the last syllable, in English this is not the case. If we want to stick to the regular rhythm of the poem and accent the last syllable of each line, we can’t finish the line with a word like ‘elephant’ or ‘turtle’ which have a stressed first syllable in English. So we either have to invert the lines and say ‘An elephant we’ve raised’ instead of ‘We’ve raised an elephant’ or simply use another animal – e.g. ‘We’ve raised a big fat hog’.

The ABAB rhyming structure provides less of a challenge since it simply requires finding enough words to rhyme with ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. Poetry translation being a free art form, we can of course choose to abandon the rhyming structure altogether and go with a free verse style if we want to be more faithful to the content of the poem. However, this would seem to me a greater loss in this children’s poem where the rhyme and rhythm really carry the whole thing nicely along.

Finally there’s the question of the title. ‘Chez moi’ can be translated as ‘at mine’, ‘at my place’, ‘at my house’, ‘where I live’ etc. The longer options might require a change in structure of the first lines – e.g. ‘At my house, the boy did say’ (if we want to stick to 7 syllables); ‘At my place, said the little boy’ (if we’re flexible with the syllable count). In the end I went with ‘At mine’ since I also like the fact that it mimics the simple, 2-syllable structure of the French ‘Chez moi’.

So first off here’s the most literal version keeping the ABAB rhyming structure, where I kept as many original terms and ideas as I could with a few exceptions, like ‘laitue’ (lettuce) becoming ‘purple’ (both completely illogical in their context), ‘trésor‘ (treasure) replaced by ‘pearl’, and the addition of a cowboy in the fourth verse. The rhythm is a little weird though, with a 7-6-8-7 syllable structure (with the exception of the last line which is 6 syllables), I’ve highlighted in bold the words which need to be stressed for the rhythm to work

At mine

At mine, said the little girl
We’ve got an elephant
His eyes shine and his lids unfurl
When Dad paints him white for Lent.

At mine, sid the little boy
We have raised a turtle.
She sings to us and brings us joy
In Latin and in purple.

At mine, said the little girl,
All the crockery is gold
You’d think that we were eating pearl
When we’re eating lentils cold.

At mine, said the little boy,
Sleeps a Chinese Emperor
Faced with Indians like a cowboy,
He will never surrender.

Indians ! – said the little girl
You really think I’m thick.
My piercing needle I will hurl
And your finger it will prick!

I played around with a few other variations and different syllable-lengths, but ended up feeling that the 7-7-7-7 structure best reproduced the feel of the French, with a stress on the last syllable in each line, despite the change in imagery it created in my version. As in the French, the first line of the last verse is 8 rather than 7 syllables long. Here then the elephant becomes a big fat hog, the turtle is a turtle-dove, the Chinese Emperor is an Oriental King, and the Iroquois… becomes a Ruby Ring. I’m still not 100% satisfied with this version for various reasons but it is what it is, maybe there are other translations of this little poem out there that I’ve yet to find…

At Mine

At mine, said the little girl
We have raised a big fat hog,
His eyes shine, he starts to twirl
When Dad takes him to the bog.

At mine, said the little boy,
We have raised a turtle-dove,
She sings songs that we enjoy
In Latin from high above.

At mine, said the little girl
All the plates are made of gold.
You’d think we were eating pearl
When we’re eating lentils cold.

At mine, said the little boy
There’s an Oriental King
All the rugs he does destroy
With his magic ruby ring.

Ruby ring! Said the little girl
Now you really think I’m dumb!
My fierce needle I will hurl
And prick your little thumb!

Harry Potter in translation

Here’s one for you Harry Potter fans out there. Ever think about how all the different names and ‘made up’ (or rather historically sourced) words in the Harry Potter books are translated into other languages? Well I just listened to an interview with the guy who had the great privilege of translating the books into French, and if your French is up to scratch you can hear the whole conversation here.

Otherwise, here is a summary of the most interesting points concerning his translation considerations and the research that went into his work. Interestingly, I’ve since read that once the books became hugely popular, strict control was placed on the translation of the terms and names into other languages, but as the French version had already been published, the many inventions of the translator were there to stay. So ‘muggle’ is ‘muggle’ in all the different Harry Potters, except in French, where it is…

Muggle – Moldu

Here the translator was looking for something with a similar consonance (starting with an ‘m’, perhaps with an ‘l’ in there somewhere) and suggestiveness. J.K. Rowling claims ‘muggle’ came from the colloquial insult ‘mug’, or someone a bit dumb, although the word itself has appeared in literature before. The translator took the term ‘mol du cerveau’, literally ‘soft-brained’, and simply shortened it to moldu, to refer to all the silly, oblivious humans in the world of wizards.

Hogwarts – Poudlard

J.K. Rowling claims she saw a plant called the hogwort in a botanical gardens and based the name of her famous school on that, changing a vowel along the way. In the French translation that connection is lost, but the word-play remains. The warts of the hog become the lice of the lard – ‘pou de lard’, and so, Poudlard. Interestingly, the translator notes that ‘Poudlard’ sounds vaguely English to French speakers who often puzzle at how to pronounce it ‘correctly’.

Madeye Moody – Maugrey Fol Oeil

Madeye Moody is always moody (moaning, grumbling, bitter) about something or other. How to convey this in French? Take the verb ‘maugréer’, which means to moan, mutter or grumble about something, and turn it into a vaguely English-looking ‘Maugrey’. ‘Madeye’ keeps its literal translation to ‘Fol Oeil’, and ta-da! Other fun literal character translations include Neville Longbottom who becomes Neville Londubat (from ‘long du bas’) and Scabbers (Ron’s rat) who is Croûtard in French (from ‘croûte’ meaning ‘scab’).

Hufflepuff – Pouffesouffle

The translator noted that the name ‘Hufflepuff’ evoked two things: first the story of the three little pigs (‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’), and second that the students of Hufflepuff were perhaps less academically gifted, and so trying to catch up to the others, always slightly behind and a little out of breath. The French version uses the three little pigs vocabulary (‘Je souffle et je pouffe…’) to make a composite word which conveys the same meaning as in the English and even uses the same repetition of ‘ff’, evoking the puffing and breathing.

Voldemort – It’s already in French!

Exceptionally, J.K. Rowling used a French term for ‘the flight of death’, to stand in for her very evil antagonist. She has since apologised to France. Nevertheless, she needn’t have apologised to the translator who had very little (i.e. none at all) work to do to translate the name. He has remained in French, as in all other languages, Voldemort. But his other incarnation, Tom Marvolo Riddle (an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’), had to be changed for the riddle to work. In French he became, amusingly enough, Tom Elvis Jedusor (‘je suis Voldemort‘). So there’s no literal ‘riddle’ (‘devinette’) in his name, but ‘jeu du sort’ does mean ‘game of chance’, and ‘sort’ is also a word for ‘magic spell’, so the translation not only works well as an anagram, it’s also exceedingly clever. Not sure what the Elvis is about, but I have a feeling the translator had a good chuckle when he came up with it.

Untranslated: Dumbledore, Hagrid, Minerva

There are also some names he chose not to change, and the reasons are also quite compelling. The three names, Dumbledore, Hagrid and Minerva, all appear on the same page of a Thomas Hardy novel it would seem. ‘Dumbledore’ is an old dialect word for ‘bumblebee’, giving the image of a busy person, zipping from flower to flower; in Hardy’s novel he’s an of-the-earth kind of character, lacking the pretention which would befit his status. Hagrid is an old term referring to a tortured soul, someone haunted by spirits and nightmares. As for Minerva, she is the Goddess of wisdom, of the arts and of war, and exists as Minerve in French. The translator considered that none of them could be improved through translation and left them as they were.

For more information about Harry Potter in translation, there’s a nice section on the Language Realm website.

A une Damoyselle Malade

To rebound from the Radiolab post the other day, I thought I’d give you my own version of Clement Marot’s ‘A une Damoyselle Malade‘ (‘To a Sickly Little Lady’). A 16th century poem which became somewhat of an obsession for Douglas Hofstadter who saw it as an ultimate challenge in translation and published a book with over 60 versions of the poem in English.

The French poem is catchy, cute, playful and intelligent. Here are some of Hofstadter’s key rules in translating it, which I have tried to follow:

  1. It has to be 28 lines.
  2. Each line has to have 3 syllables.
  3. The stress falls on the last of these syllables.
  4. It is a series of rhyming couplets (AA BB CC DD…)
  5. The last line echoes the first.
  6. The poet slips his own name into the poem.

Obviously, the aim is also to retain the essence of the poem itself – the style, nature and contect. Of course, poetry is never a word-by-word translation and there are always compromises. But I gave it my best shot whilst riding on the bus yesterday, so here goes.

A une Damoyselle malade

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

To a sickly Little Lady
Little dove,
Hello Love,
How are you?
Don’t be blue,
Illness ‘tis,
Prison is,
But don’t fret,
Better get
Very soon,
And the moon
You shall see
Filled with glee,
Out with me,
Una D.
So eat up
From your cup,
Have some jam
(don’t try spam –
‘tis no good)
But with food
Lose that pain,
And you’ll gain,
Coloured cheek;
Don’t be meek,
I’m not wrong,
You’ll get strong.
God sends love,
Little dove.

If you like this little poem and want to read many more versions, pick up Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter.


Ever had the experience of singing song lyrics for years and then, seeing them written down one day, realising that you’ve been saying something similar but not quite right all along? With foreign languages this kind of experience is pretty frequent, especially when it comes to colloquial expressions. You can be using them in the right context, pronouncing the correct sound, and then one day, out of the blue, it will hit you: the expression as it existed inside your mind was something quite different, quite other than the linguistic reality.

Cycling through town yesterday the name of a restaurant caught my eye – an Asian eatery called ‘Ras-le-bol’ – literally a bowl filled to the brim, with an accompanying image to that effect. It was a clever play on words as in French the expression means ‘to be fed up’. And so it dawned on me that the colloquial expression I had been happily using was a 3-word composite with a literal meaning close to ‘to have it up to here with something’.

I had never really questioned it, but it vaguely existed in my mind as a set word, something like ‘ralbolle’, or being pushed at best a conjugation of the verb ‘râler’ (to complain), so ‘râle bol’. Not that this made any sort of sense, but I wasn’t asking it to, like many colloquial expressions, I had assumed its origins obscure, perhaps a result of some sort of Verlan inversion.

Yet this discovery gives the expression a new definition, a new feeling in my mouth, even though I’ll continue using it just as before. Next time I’m fed up with French administration and exclaim ‘j’en ai ras-le-bol!’, in my mind, just for an instant, will appear that faint image of a bowl, brim-full of frustration.

How to surprise an unfazed Frenchman

To the native English speakers among you who have ever attempted to learn French, you will remember the difficulty in differentiating between all those nasal vowels which make all the difference between the words ‘on’, ‘en’ and ‘un’ for example. There is also the difference between the acute ‘u’ sound and the more rounded ‘ou’ – confuse those two and you may end up saying ‘my ass’ when you meant to say ‘my neck’. I once spent about an hour with a very determined American desperate to correctly pronounce ‘tu’ and ‘tous’ although he could barely hear the difference between the two.

To the native French among you, all this will seem silly and obvious of course, for how could one ever fail to distinguish the difference between ‘ass’ and ‘neck’ or ‘you’ and ‘all’. My husband, a Frenchman, was rather struck when I pointed out to our mutual American friend, the one struggling between ‘tu’ and ‘tous’, that the difference between the two words did not just present itself in the vowel sounds. The ‘t’s in the two words are rather different. If you’re saying them correctly, then the positioning of your tongue will be different in preparation for the ‘tu’ (flatter) than for the ‘tous’ (more rounded upwards).

The Frenchman quickly and soundlessly tried this maneuver out in his mouth before looking at me in utter surprise. Clearly never before had he contemplated the possibility that in his native tongue, the letter ‘t’ could be sounded in different ways. This is the mistake people make when learning other languages – assuming that the same letter will in general represent the same sound. The English ‘t’ is not exactly the same as the French or the Italian ‘t’. Often the sound is similar but the tongue is positioned in ever so slightly a different way, and if that positioning is not observed, then whatever you do, you will always end up sounding a little foreign.

The more blatant example of this is the rolled or trilled ‘r’ (like in Italian) vs. the guttural ‘r’ (like in French) vs. the softer way Americans say ‘r’. Your best bet to avoid all these pronunciation difficulties is to learn as many languages as possible before age 12. If you are reading this a little too late, then there are a variety of techniques you can find online to guide your mouth through a series of contortions in a very deliberate attempt to pronounce these foreign sounds. Some will outright incite you to turn towards hard liquor to ‘loosen up your tongue’.  Anything with a video guide and a diagram of your mouth to show tongue positioning is best otherwise the instructions can be confusing as hell and liquor may indeed be needed – good luck!

The Thoughts of Mark Twain

Following on from the last post, it seems that Mark Twain had his own bit to say about English orthography, and notably proposed a reformation plan:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k”or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 orso modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the mainzov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

It wasn’t just English though that rubbed Twain up the wrong way. When in France he famously proclaimed: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” And upon finding a French translation of his own story which he deemed sub-standard, he proceeded to re-translate this French version of  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” into English, maintaining the French sentence structure and turns of phrase as a less-than-subtle mockery of the language of the frogs.

Here’s what a section looks like:

“It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Finally, perhaps the language which got his goat the most was German. If ever in need of a pick-me-up, find a quiet spot and read Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, which is simply entitled ‘The Awful German Language‘.  In his witty, at times utterly hilarious style, Twain rants about the innumerable exceptions, the unmemorisable use of appropriate cases, the bizarre and illogical construction of the German sentence, the confusing adjectival declination, the never-ending word constructions and finally, the outright odd gender system whereby ‘turnip’ is feminine but ‘maiden’ is neuter.

To illustrate this latter point, Twain offers us a literal translation of the “Tale of the Fishwife and its sad fate” which starts like this (nouns are capitalised as in the German):

“It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward.”

I leave you to discover the Fishwife’s sad fate on your own as I continue to search out other such little treasures from Mark Twain’s cynical pen.