Found in Translation

I use my twitter feed, from time to time, to practice writing in French. I was just going on a rant about how much of French pop is actually in English. I didn't know this until I started listening to RadioNova. I love Radio Nova. It's like listening to a really good American radio station--and that's part of the problem.


But as I was trying to formulate the tweet, something occurred to me about our conversations around the problem of translation. It's not a really good idea to approach a conversation by asking "How do I say this in French?"  A better approach would be to say "How would a French person express this?" or better still, "How would my particular French self express this?

I don't yet have the language mastery to explain the difference except to say that the former method means trying to match French words with English words. The latter method means trying to think about how French-speakers whom you have met express similar notions, or similar forms. 

The best instance that I can think of is as follows. (And forgive me if I've used this before.) The French don't really express the feeling of longing for someone, or something, like we do. If I were gone from New York for too long, I would say "I miss New York." But if a French person were gone from Paris they might say "Paris manque à moi" crudely translated as "Paris is missing to me." Or "Paris me manque," crudely put "Paris I miss." 

You can't really do a "word to word" translation to express the feeling of "missing" in French. You have to put on the Mask, and then ask how would your "character" would express the feeling.  The ability to do this depends on your knowledge of French. The more French you've been exposed to--and I don't merely mean the more vocabulary you know--the more likely you are to find a way to express the notion correctly. In my tutoring class I often say, "En anglais, vite fais," when I need to speak in English. I can't actually translate that phrase. But I know the notion it expresses.

We are not so much learning a second language, as we are creating another self. And that is incredibly exciting. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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