Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 13 June 2009 12:15 UK

Lost in translation across the Channel

France might be just across the English Channel from Britain, but Emma Jane Kirby says both nations are still prone to the pitfalls of linguistic misunderstandings.

Obama arriving at the Normandy American Cemetery
The 65th anniversary of the World War II D-Day landings took place in France

Last weekend, standing on Pegasus bridge in Normandy for the D-Day celebrations, I was touched to see two classes of French primary school children singing the British national anthem in honour of the veterans.

As I went closer, I realised with delight that while they had got the tune off pat, the words were just slightly off the mark.

Standing tall and proud, the children were calling on the Almighty to "sieve the Queen and her setter, Victoria."

It took me straight back to my own school days when I had learned to sing the nursery rhyme Frere Jacques.

For many years I had warned Frere Jacques to wake up not because the morning bells were ringing (sonnez les matines), but because there was "sunny semolina" to be had.


Even in your own language, it is difficult to catch accurately the words of a song if they are not written down in front of you, and in France, which imports most of its music from the US or UK, there is even a word for the appropriation of lyrics.

It is "yaourt", or "to yoghurt".

You start singing confidently... and then trail off into inarticulate "yoghurting" when your lexicon runs dry.

As far as I understand it, so long as you look slightly pained and shut your eyes while you yoghurt, you seem to get away with it.

Steak being cooked
'I Want to Break Free' or 'I Want a Steak Frites'?

Some years ago, an Irish friend of mine was on a French exchange in Paris and was hanging out with some of the local teenagers.

Desperate to impress her, they began to reel off their repertoire of English songs.

They said their favourite was a hit by Queen that they had picked up on the radio - I believe the original version was called I Want to Break Free - but unfortunately, the boys knew only the yoghurt version.

Although retaining the original passion, it had lost a little of the sense. It went: I Want a Steak Frites, I Want a Steak Frites.

'Simply hysterical'

Mispronunciations can have embarrassing consequences.

A French friend of mine, preparing a few snacks to hand round at an English drinks party, implored her guests to help themselves to nipples.

My father once returned from a trip to France complaining bitterly that the French had just laughed at him when he had tried to ask for directions to the railway station.

British acquaintance was struck when he arrived in France by how much the French seemed to talk about Johnny Marr, the Smiths' guitarist

A few probing questions revealed that he had not asked for la gare at all - he had asked for la guerre (the war) - and the locals were simply hysterical at the idea of this white-haired, would-be combatant showing up for duty 65 years too late.

But it can happen to the best of us.

Madame de Gaulle was said to have been lunching with the American ambassador at the time of her husband's retirement when she was asked what she was most looking forward to in the years ahead.

She thought for a moment before announcing boldly: "A penis". A startled hush fell over the table until the former president leant over and said: "My dear, I think it's pronounced 'happiness'."

Speak in French, wrote Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, when you cannot remember the English for a thing.

But there are many faux amis (false friends) to be wary of in English and French.

'Slip of the ear'

You can flatter a French woman by telling she looks formidable in her new dress, but tell an English woman she looks formidable in her new frock and she will quickly go and change.

French sitting in a cafe
The French language is littered with faux amis

And that one wrong word can do untold damage.

In English, looking and watching are two different things. In French, one word - regarder - will cover you for both.

My American friend Janet, on holiday in Montana with her French husband Eddy, suggested he wandered around the shops while she tried on her zillionth pair of shoes.

After a few minutes spent in a bed linen store he was approached by the female assistant who asked him if he needed any help.

"No thanks, I am just watching," he smiled, and was puzzled as she backed off slowly, desperately fumbling for her phone.

The other day I was reading an article in a French newspaper about how we regularly mishear words, particularly in foreign languages, and how that completely changes our comprehension of the conversation.

The writer spoke of a British acquaintance of his who was struck when he arrived in France by how much the French seemed to talk about Johnny Marr, the Smiths' guitarist.

Until the writer realised what his friend was actually hearing was "J'en ai marre (I'm sick of it)".

He went on in his article to inform his readers that the English even had a phrase for such a misunderstanding. It was called, he said confidently, a "slip of the ear".

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