It is Owl!

In Culture, Language, Travel on August 8, 2012 at 10:09 pm

“Sky, My husband!” is the name of a book a friend recently gave me. It is a book of french expressions translated into English: literally and then more correctly. The literal translation of course is much more fun, as the name of the book itself goes to show.

The French expression, “Ciel mon mari!”, literally translated into “Sky, my husband”  is said to have been uttered by an adulterous wife, surprised by the inopportune return of her husband. In any case, the book reminded me of all the problems, funny or otherwise that a language can cause between cultures.

Barn Owl in flight Tyto alba. Français : Choue...

Barn Owl in flight Tyto alba. Français : Chouette effraie en vol en France (Pyrénées)(Tyto alba) Deutsch: Schleiereule im Flug(Tyto alba). Suomi: Tornipöllö (Tyto alba). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In France, ” chouette” is often an exclamation used in circumstances where you might want to say Great! or Awesome! or Super! I always thought it meant nothing more than great until I read this book and I realised that it literally means…….. Owl.

Huh? Owl??!!!

Ok, personally I think an owl is a really handsome bird but that does not make me want to equate everything great with an owl! Still, ever since I found out that I had been screaming owl every so often, it amuses me every time I use it.

Originally, an owl was considered to bring bad news and so equated to misfortune and death. But in Ancient Greece, apparently an owl was associated with Athena, for its beauty. Then again in ancient French, the verb ” choeter”  meant to take great pains to look good. And thus it slowly evolved that “chouette” came to be associated with something that is pretty as well as good news. Wow, what an owl journey!

I have made a lot of language blunders when I first came to France and was still learning the basics of the language. There is one that still makes me laugh. I had fallen in love with French pastries soon after having come to France and anyone


PAINS aux RAISINS (Photo credit: Mary.Do)

who has walked the same road will understand exactly what I mean. One of those was ” Pain aux raisins” (or Bread with raisins) also found in North America as well as Australia although I am told it is not made in exactly the same way. In any case, I had trouble pronouncing ” raisin” which has the same spelling in english but in French sounds completely different (Its more like ray-z-an) and kept confusing it with “raison” or reason (pronounced ray-z-on). I think you can guess whats coming. Yes, I admit to having left many a baker perplexed and bewildered at my requests for the Bread with Reason.

When learning a language we have a tendency to translate literally from whichever language we are at ease with. I used to often translate from English because it was the closest language I knew to French. And it often resulted in social disasters. I was once trying to small-talk with a girl I barely knew. I knew her mother was in town so I wanted to ask her how her mother was doing. I gave her my politest smile and asked, ” Comment est ta mère?“, translated literally from How is your mother.

How can you go wrong with that? Except, I saw the look on the girl’s face and I knew I had. I was later told that the correct version of How is your mother, should have been “Comment va ta mère?” ( How goes your mother?) and Comment est ta mère basically means I am asking about the character or the what kind of person her mother is. Great!

C understood when I was translating things directly and would correct me every time I would do that in front of him. However, there were times even he was stumped. One evening, I cut C short by asking him to please stop eating my head! Completely stupefied in the face of such cannibalistic accusations, he could only stare at me open-mouthed. I had just literally translated an expression from Hindi, oft uttered when one is irritated and you want the other person to shut up.

Another incident I remember was during French classes one day at the Alliance Française, we were doing a short discussion on Human rights and French NGOs. One of the French NGO is called, “Action contre la faim” or Action against Hunger, working mostly in Africa and other countries for food security. One student confused two words and kept saying, “Action contre la femme” ( Action against Women)! 😀

But language problems may not arise only between people of different nationalities or using different languages. In today’s internet world, there are a lot of new words and jargon that keeps building and not all the words get translated.   Like “chat” or “chatting” are often used like that in various languages. In French too, the word “chat” for online conversations are used as it is. At one point C had “Developer of Chat software” on his CV. In french that would be, “Logiciels pour Chat”. It was during his interview for the university that one of the teachers looked at his CV, gave him an incredoulous look and asked,  “You make software for cats? Why?”.

Yes, you got it, “chat” in French is  a cat. 😉


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