Adventures in (Un)translation

I want to apply some of my thinking, here, to a rather entertaining experience from today.

I was eating dinner with my floor mates when a French student, Fanny, who also lives on our floor, came into the kitchen to make dinner. We invited her to eat with us, and she accepted, and I decided to try and speak to her.

What followed was a horrible mess. Je parle très mal français. But, it was wonderful practice, and good entertainment for my friends.

We learned that she is from Bordeaux, and so I asked her if she knows the town Segonzac, which is nearby, because ancestors of mine—the Vallieres—are from there, and I am planning on making a visit. She didn’t, but I learned that most towns around Bordeaux end with—ac, and this then led to a long, arduous exchange in which she laughed quite a bit at me (but quite friendlily1 so), obliging my halting butchery of her beautiful language while deciphering my sentences with help from the others.

I explained how Pierre Valliere was a colonist to New France. He married Marie, who was one of les filles du roi. She understood filles du roi, which was an exciting piece of shared historical knowledge. She then asked us where we’re from, and we told her, and then she wanted to know where Vancouver is located in relation to Calgary, where the other Canadian exchange students (who can all speak French fluently) are from. I told her the distance in driving hours, since I drive there every year for Thanksgiving with my family. She perked up at the word, because she thinks the idea of Thanksgiving is amazing as it isn’t a holiday in France. I then explained (or tried to) the classic story of the pilgrims who colonized the eastern United States, almost died, were saved by les autochthons (new word—means “the aboriginal inhabitants”; i.e. the Native Americans), and then had a feast to celebrate. Then I explained who the Puritans were. Voila! The legendary origins of Thanksgiving, and a dash of ecclesiastical history, rendered in abysmal French. 

In and around there, I discovered a possible etymological link between the French verb “to share” (partager), and English verb “to partake.”2 Partager is a more general word in French, but it was interesting to ponder the linguistic relation between the two. I was able to explain the connection I was making in terms of communion (in which I “partake” à mon église)—appropriate to our discussion of Puritans, religious holidays, etc. Our conversation eventually turned to those phrases which are hard to traduire (translate), like “useless trivia” (because I have a lot of it—and of course, I’ve forgotten what she said was the equivalent phrase in French) or “herding cats” (because that’s what it’s like trying to get our group of fourteen anywhere on time). And here is the scholarly connection:

In any interaction, as you will know by now if you have paid attention3 in my previous posts, our habitus4 intersect with each other, and with it, our languages, the lexical fields that frame much of the way we view the world. The way we talk about even such mundane concepts as attention “being paid”, for instance, can often be very difficult to translate. This is what falls outside the overlap, the shared space of our interactions, the untranslatable between us. Sometimes you can push through, but other times, there is no perfect equivalent, both with words and the complex users of those words, which is to say, people. Thus, as James Mensch argues, our freedom lies in one another’s excessive potentiality. There is always something in our others’ natures that exceeds our own understandings and expectations, and so, freedom is located in and produced by the infinite possibilities of our social interactions. In the lacunas, the lexical gaps between, for instance, Fanny’s French and my English, there is a peculiar sort of liberation and discovery. In our conversation, I learned some new words (transpirer, for one, because quand je parle beaucoup de français, je transpire) and discovered new overlaps in meaning, such as partager and partake, all of which broaden my understanding of the world, my history, and the various lexical and experiential worlds that my others inhabit.

So there you have it. My academic rambling is not totally useless. Try it sometime. Engage with the excessive potentiality of your others. Just don’t tell them that’s what you’re doing. Say you want to go out for coffee. That won’t sound as weird.


  1. This is a great word. I had originally written something to the effect of, “she was very friendly,” but then I changed it to “quite friendlily,” and in constructing the adverb I instinctively knew it had to have another ly attached to it. But when you write friendlily or say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous. So I looked it up. Friendlily is, in fact, the adverbial version of the adjective friendly. Love it. 

  2. So I had to look this up as well. Happily, another good instinct. The two words are descended from the classical Latin root pars, a part or piece. This root yields the Latin verb partior, from which, in the French, comes partager, to share or divide. The root pars also produces particeps (literally, part-taker), which ultimately becomes, in English, partake. There you have it. Fun times in etymology. 

  3. In English, attention is something paid. Interesting, non

  4. And the plural of habitus is habitus, apparently. 

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