How Google Helped Me Learn French, Sort of
What did we do before these amazing online translators?
I’m really dating myself here, but in my youth, “wild and crazy guy” Steve Martin had a routine in which he said “Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything.” He was not wrong.
I took German in school, not French, so for years, I’ve just used the context to guess the meaning of Hercule Poirot’s frequent French phrases. Occasionally, I’ve run into an edition that put an asterisk next to some words to point to the translation at the bottom of the page. It didn’t seem like I was missing much.
While working on this Agatha Christie manuscript, I faithfully recorded all the French quotes. I figure if I don’t know what they mean, there must be other folks who don’t. There are plenty of phrase books available and several online translators, so I thought it shouldn’t be too hard.
What I discovered is that there are literal translations and free translations. Most of the time, the general idea of a free translation is all that is needed to move the story forward, but I like words and I like history, so many times, I wandered off the path to learn how the word evolved or what the connotation of a word is as opposed to its denotation.
For instance, take the phrase “sacré bleu.” No doubt you’ve heard some French stereotype exclaim “sacré bleu!” in some movie or television show over the years. You get the gist, an irritated French person, without having to know what the words mean.
If you google “sacré bleu,” you get “expression of exasperation.” That’s a free definition. If you run “sacré bleu” through a translator, you get “sacred blue,” which is the literal definition. That’s when the historian in me wonders why someone would say that.
So down the rabbit hole we go! A person would say “sacré bleu” because it sounds like “sacré Dieu” which means “sacred God.” Since it has been forbidden since the time of Moses to take the name of the Lord in vain, “bleu” was a good substitution. Although one wonders if Moses should have discussed the connotations and denotations of this commandment.
So that’s an interesting bit of knowledge to add, but there’s more. The phrase “sacré bleu” is rarely used by any actual French people. It really is a stereotype and has been for quite a while, even when Agatha Christie was writing her earliest Poirot novels. I assume Christie had much more experience with France and French-speaking people than I have ever had, so does Poirot say “sacré bleu” because English mystery readers would expect it?
That answer I may never know, but I did spend some time trying to figure it out. And that was just one phrase. It’s no surprise that this manuscript has taken so long to research! Without the resources on Google, I would be working on this forever. But it’s been so interesting and once the book is out, I hope readers will find it as interesting as I do.
Image “Traditional French Man,” by Kim, licensed under CC0 via Flickr