Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures


It’s Memorial Day!

Thanks to a practice which really annoys me, I am now going to be able to remember which holiday marks the beginning of the summer season and which one ends it. The key came in the form of a movie I will never see called LABOR DAY. Here’s the US poster:


And here’s the French one:



Can you guess what, under normal circumstances, would bother me about this? It’s changing an English title into another English title. I mean, I get it: no one in Europe knows what Labor Day is but this practice is generally dumb and confusing.

Even before I heard and read the positively dreadful reviews for this movie (notice complete absence of reviewer quotes!), I wouldn’t have seen it for one big reason: it’s based on a book by Joyce Maynard and I don’t like her at all. I was studying writing when her book At Home in the World came out and one of my professors was exactly the kind of hippy-dippy person to eat it up and she made us read it too. I found the whole thing to be in poor taste and indicative of a person who was still not mature enough (then aged 45) to own up to any decisions she’d ever made. Other opinions are available but that’s the nice version of mine. The mean version is quite nasty and includes lots of foul words used to describe women of whom of I have a very low opinion.


The pros and cons of copyediting

thumbs up and downA recent editing job presented me with the following line in a medical-supply catalog:

secret antibacterial repellant material

My initial reaction was one of horror. What kind of secret stuff were they trying to sell? And who or what was being repelled? Once I settled down, I wrote the client a nice little note, asking for clarification on what the item in question was and gently suggesting that nothing in the medical industry should be advertised as “secret” as the word implied withholding information and didn’t engender trust.

What I got back made things much more clear, though not a lot less graphic. The product is a material placed on gurneys, stretchers, hospital beds, etc. Its purpose is not to absorb anything, specifically secretions, what in English we politely call “bodily fluids.”

This reminded me of an old client / student in Barcelona who asked me to look over the CV he’d paid to have translated. He was applying for a big job at a UK bank and wanted it “top shop.” (He meant “ship-shape,” a phrase I’d mentioned a few weeks prior.)

Under the heading of Other Responsibilities was “Exclusive personal affairs.” I was surprised. He seemed like he was happily married, so I asked him to explain what, precisely, that was supposed to mean. In the end, along with a lot of other changes, I amended the line to read “In charge of personnel issues.”

Clear something up

The in a word’s pronunciation guide indicates that the stress on the word comes just after the mark. In this manner, we have “su-KREET” and “SEE-cret.” Spelling makes a huge difference in many cases, but not always.

secrete |siˈkrēt| — (of a cell, gland, or organ) produce and discharge (a substance).
secret |ˈsēkrit| — not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.

ship-shape — in good order; trim and neat.

personal |ˈpərsənəl| — of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else.
personnel |ˌpərsəˈnel| — people employed in an organization or engaged in an organized undertaking.

→ In case you were thinking it, today’s post title was inspired by Roger Waters’s “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.”


More movie / translation fun

Part of being an expat cinefile is figuring out how English movie titles are translated. As I mentioned yesterday, I am pretty good at this, partly because I have a vast amount of movie trivia in my head but also because I have a pretty firm grasp on translation. Sometimes, neither of these things are any good to me because the foreign title is way off the original. Here are some that have tripped me up (or amused me) over the years.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

TWO MEN ONE DESTINY is not a title I would ever give to this movie. Only for starters (because I don’t want to be here all day), I don’t think either man would have said they believed in destiny. They were train robbers who were always figuring out their next move just moments before they needed to make it. Grade: F

The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music

This is where I admit that I’m one of those people who doesn’t like THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I never saw it as a kid, so it didn’t imprint and, without the nostalgia factor, this film is empirically bad. Now that that’s out there, I will say that at least the original title is pulled from the lyrics of the opening song and SMILES AND TEARS doesn’t factor in any lyrics. Or make any sense, really. Grade: C (‘cause I don’t care)



This translation, ONE OF US, at least comes from the narration: “He’s one of us, you understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys.” Weirdly, the title of the book is Wiseguy so this line encapsulates all versions of the title. Grade: B+

And finally, a perfect translation.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

The Long Kiss Goodnight

This is my favorite bad movie of all time. It’s got everything you’d ever want in a good movie, but amped up 1000 times and made all the more awesome for it. The French title reflects this, as it’s 1000 times more awesome than the movie. “Au revoir” means “goodbye” as everyone knows, but its original sense was “until we re-see each other” so this title is basically UNTIL WE SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN, WHICH’LL BE NEVER. The movie is saying F-you to everyone and I love it. Grade: A++


Cold calculations at the cinema

Scanning the list of movies playing in town, I regularly try to guess what their original titles were and am usually right. Confronted with something called COLD SISTERS, I figured it was some little-known B-noir probably starring two women fighting over a man and read on down the list. It wasn’t till I was cross-checking with an actual list of English-language movies that I saw that Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was playing and had to double back to see how I’d missed it in the French listing.

It turns out that my brain, in its infinite wisdom, had read SUEURS FROIDES [Cold Sweats] as SOEURS FROIDES [Cold Sisters]. It was an easy mistake to make.


Thinking of Madeleine and Judy as “sisters” puts a whole different spin on the story.

Consider something

Translation, something I do on some level every waking hour of my life, is an art not a science. I am frequently frustrated with people whose approach is word-for-word or who don’t appreciate nuance, intention and meaning. As a professional endeavor, it’s not easy work (though it can get easier) but it requires a lot more effort than most people would think.

Douglas Hofstadter, a guy who’s way smarter than me (he’s a cognitive scientist at Indiana University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author), agrees. In a story over at ESQUIRE about what real AI will be like and how many fake AIs are out there, he cites GoogleTranslate (a modern Towel of Babel) for not performing as advertised.

“Real translating involves understanding what is being said and then reproducing the ideas that you just heard in a different language. Translation has to do with ideas, it doesn’t have to do with words, and Google Translate is about words triggering other words.”

Granted, Google wouldn’t have made the same Hitchcock mistake I did, but it would never have been able to puzzle out that 7H58 CE SAMEDI-LÀ [7:58 This Saturday Morning] is BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD which I guessed immediately because I am a human whose brain, while frequently frustrating, is better than a computer swapping words for other words.


Stick and stones and Harry Potter

Coming across people freaking out about Tom Molvolo Riddle’s name in the French version of the Harry Potter books reminded me that baguette was one of my early bête noires. (Though in French, it would be bêtes noires and now I don’t know which to use.)

I’d warn for spoilers here, but if you don’t already know the reveal about Tom Riddle from the second Harry Potter story, you don’t care.

Harry Potter French Voldemort

As to baguettes, they are lots of things, primarily thin and flexible sticks. This means that their English counterparts include wands, batons, chopsticks, drumsticks (musical), architectural molding detail and the long, thin bread typically peeking out of grocery bags in every TV show since the mid-80s.

Potter’s been in the news this week (at least the stuff I read) since author JK Rowling “admitted” that, in retrospect, she would have had different characters end up together. This led to a flurry of posts and stories about how Frizzy Hair and Dumb As Rocks were the best couple in the history of books or how she should have ended up with World’s Most Petulant Prat. (There’s a genuinely good defense here.) You can tell that in the annals of things about which I care not at all, this is right up there.

Things about which I care a great deal however, include the proper use of the English language and recognition of homophones. “To sow” is to plant seed by scattering; “to sew” is to connect things by stitching. 

Harry Potter sewing fail