I sometimes think the French should just throw in the towel and speak English instead

English idioms are often very picturesque, and although French has picturesque idioms it doesn't have as many as English
English idioms are often very picturesque, and although French has picturesque idioms it doesn't have as many as English

I have just spent some weeks in France, and have encountered a recurrent problem: how does one cope when translating English idiomatic words and phrases into French? What is one to do about “taking the biscuit”? Or, to cite gastronomic examples: a piece of cake, a dog’s breakfast, to cut the mustard, to chicken out, old bean, to spill the beans, egg on your face, a red herring, the best thing since sliced bread, in the soup and one sandwich short of a picnic? Understandably the French don’t have frogs in their throats, they have cats. And likewise they would never want to “give it some welly”. One can see why. Sometimes, rarely though, one is in luck and an idiom is the same as in French, for example, “it’s not my cup of tea.”

This problem occurs all the time when one stumbles shambolically through an attempt to communicate in France. Words and phrases literally translated (even when there seems to be a ready translation) just don’t function: and incomprehension registers chez one’s listeners. Which is why one’s French is so hopelessly stilted, and one bores oneself grappling and struggling and stumbling and flailing about with impossibilities, and lamentably failing.

Philip Larkin wrote to Anthony Thwaite about what “Give Larkin the chop” might be in French: “Donnez le côtelette a Larquin!” Larkin’s friend Robert Conquest wrote to him: “Did you see that Wallace Stevens says that French and English are the same language? Cor pierrez les corbeaux.” What’s certainly true is that if you tell a French person to say “fromage” when taking a photograph it produces a very funny and unsatisfactory expression on the face. I think it was Steve Martin who first noticed this.

In an article, “Crazy about paving”, Adam Thorpe implored a neighbour in Nîmes not to go in for “crazy paving”. He tried the phrase in English with a French accent, but resorted to the more cumbersome “dallage irrégulier en pierres plats”. He was sufficiently soigné not to try “pavé fou”. And what would “crazy clogs” be? Sabots fous? Tom Stoppard records a conversation with a French man in which he said “sur votre tête”.

As one attempts communication, one pauses in mid-sentence with the anxiety that although one can come up with “la partie visible de l’iceberg” (the tip of the iceberg)  one is anxious that it does not have the same figurative resonance in French. It does. Just think of the following: clever clogs, bee in the bonnet, on the back burner, to take the piss, knickers in a twist, the cat’s pyjamas, to swing a cat and kick the bucket. Will they work in French one wonders? I recall trying to explain “pissed as a newt” to a French friend. He was much amused, and regretted that there was nothing as good in French. We aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. Any moment now, I expect to hear some French commentator say “wiggle room’”and  “budget bazooka”.

English idioms are often very picturesque, and although French has picturesque idioms it doesn’t have as many as English, and this becomes apparent once one attempts translation. French versions are often a bit of a mouthful, so it is hardly surprising that “information fallacieuse” makes heavy weather (temps lourd?) against “fake news”. Trying to speak French, one finds it difficult to come up with the alliterative vividness of “dead as a doornail”, “dead as a dodo”, “down the drain”, “fit as a fiddle”, “down in the dumps”, “dilly dally” and “not on your nelly”.

It’s not a new problem. Back in the 1870s, in Henry James’s The American, the character Christopher Newman has just arrived in Paris, and wants to learn French from Monsieur Nioche: “Let’s begin! The coffee’s ripping hot. How do you say that in French?” It was obvious to James’s readers that “déchirant” simply would not do.  Another example: Evelyn Waugh explaining to Nancy Mitford a difficulty in translating the English of Vile Bodies into French: “When I couldn’t cope with shy-making he lost interest”. It was rendered as “intimidant” – but that’s clearly inadequate. In a letter to Mitford of Aug 5 1955, Waugh translated the English phrase “hard cheese” as “dur parmesan”.

He must have known that was not remotely French. Incidentally, he has “hard cheese” in Vile Bodies. It’s probably safest to stay away from any attempt to translate “gets on my wick”. You can imagine David Suchet’s Poirot saying, “Hastings, what is this wick that is being got on?” And definitely safest to stay away from rhyming slang. “My old dutch” as “ma vielle hollandaise” certainly won’t work.

You could try to be clever and translate “Heath Robinson” as “Albert Robida” (who is, roughly, the French equivalent), but best not to take the risk. And in any case, your French interlocutor might not have the foggiest idea who Robida is. Mind you, as time goes by fewer English speakers know who Heath Robinson was. In the realms of the charmingly barmy, he anticipates Rowland Emett and Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit.

I see the danger that this article will go off the rails or be pushed into a siding as Railway Ribaldry switches the points.  Incidentally, one picturesque English idiom is “not enough room to swing a cat” – which generated a  surrealist Heath Robinson fantasy.

At some time in the 90s, I was at a conference in Nice. Late at night, Richard Holmes (the author of a respected biography of Coleridge and partner of Rose Tremain) and I went into a hotel and asked the concièrge, in English, if we could have a night cap.  The Frenchman understood English and said we would have to go to a shop. At least there was some level of  understanding, but he had not understood the idiomatic meaning. We could have gotten into even deeper hot water if we had asked for a casquette de nuit. We would have been on a hiding to nothing.

I was in France last month, and was struck by a related problem: that the French adopt English phrases either because their own language can’t cope, or it seems smart to do this. This has been going on for some time, hence the gerund nouns “parking”, “camping”, “jogging”, “marketing”, etc. A recent example is “breaking” (for news), which I heard a French reporter say. A French sports reporter simply said “heading” – as if he could not think of a French term.

French can’t really deal with compounds so they have to use English formations. “Starting block” and “start-up business” came up the other day. And there is “brainstorming”.  “Smart phone” has been with them for some time, obviously pithier than “mobile multifunction”. As for “Wifi” it was obviously going to drive “l’accès sans fil à internet” from the field.

For an English visitor, it is shocking rather than reassuring when an English word or phrase pops up in a French context. I remember being terribly disapproving when a French man in his eighties said “stoppez” instead of the perfectly good “arrêtez”. It just sounds ugly and stupid in a French sentence. It was like Boris Johnson’s buffoon-speak. Remember when he told the French to “prenez un grip and donnez moi un break”? I heard “cold case” and a French taxi driver say “last minute” the other day.

When it comes to “binge drinking”, the French don’t even bother to translate, and simply use the English phrase. Perhaps it makes them feel better.  I can hardly believe it, but on Jan 31 a politician dropped “wishful thinking” into the middle of a sentence (why not “pensée pieuse”?), and the next day we had “le green deal”. “Cold turkey”: I used the phrase talking to a French couple. The wife stipulated that when she got married the husband had to give up smoking immediately. “Cold turkey” I said. Puzzled looks. It wasn’t any clearer as “dinde froide” either. “Cool”:   the French say “cool” all the time, even though they are manifestly uncool.

This phenomenon will doubtless continue, however much the French Academy tries to nip it in the bud – if you can say that in French. (You can’t: it’s “étouffer dans l’œuf” – which is at least picturesque.) Ce navire a navigué (this ship has sailed).  I sometimes think the French ought to just throw in the towel and speak completely in  English instead. The morning that I was preparing to leave France, the newscaster was growing a measly moustache for “a challenge”. Let’s name names for the word-crime: Thomas Sotto. And refrain from making a joke with a hushed voice  about his name. When the news was dominated by the illness of the King “soft power” and “red boxes” were often aired.

If Flaubert were to read this he’d say, “But why, dear boy, are you bothering about trying to introduce lego-language to the French; why don’t you just stick to the strict and elegant language you learnt in school? Do you want, like Lou Salomé, to go to hell in a handcart?”

Well, he wouldn’t say that exactly, but he would admit that many ready-made idiomatic phrases come under the heading of his dreaded “idées reçues” (“received ideas”). So he would want no truck  (“pas de camion”? shouldn’t think so) with them.

A danger appears on the horizon, that as English is required to be more international, the English English picturesqueness is under threat. There was the case of a Radio 3 interviewer talking to the Italian opera singer Roberto Alagna, who did not understand the word “swimmingly”. And it applies to American English too. An American tourist  in August 2017 was much shocked at seeing a notice about cat’s eyes (reported in this paper), and, sad to relate, there was even administrative thought in the Suffolk County Council that the term could be changed into something more boringly accessible: road studs. God help us! One recalls the ditty: “Across the wires th’electric message comes: Asses is donkeys, arses is bums.”

Now, what have I done with those pigs in blankets?