Monday, May 17, 2010

Silent Partners

They wait until called upon, shoulder to shoulder, in a cold military stance. Their jackets are discolored at the well-worn seams.

Last week, I took Henri Goursau (and his twin brother) with me to a factory where I was hired as an interpreter. Fat and compact, they fit into my big purse, even when my laptop is riding along. I always picture them in bib overalls, with a mechanical pencil behind one ear, sometimes wearing a tool belt.

I’ve had the Goursau brothers with me for years. I picked them up at my special little place near Montparnasse, down one of those storefront alleys that lead to a hair salon, a movie theater, a shoe repair place, and an Asian noodle vendor. Turning off of the Boulevard Montparnasse, I follow the little corridor down to my destination. I never go to Paris without coming here… alone, in private, enjoying the personal curious thrill of the hunt, knowing that this place exists for strange treasure seekers like me. Once inside, my eyes will glaze over and I will hand over my credit card, not caring about the total, clutching my new found partners. My only concern is calculating how to get them all on the plane bound for home.

The Maison du Dictionnaire (98, boulevard du Montparnasse) is quieter than a church, and its glass door was once guarded by a big throw-rug of a German shepherd, always sleeping near the entrance.

I picked up two of my legal partners in that same little market. Their modest thin jackets bear little decoration, just the words “principalement juridique”. One English and one French, of course. And, as seasoned French-English translators know, the English side is fatter. We have 30% more words in English than in French, so it takes 30% more French words to say the same things. French is thick with context. My Rodale English Synonym Finder has almost twice the girth of Robert’s French version which has to flesh out Synonymes by adding Contrariétés.

I could take a two week vacation with Girodet and his “Pièges et difficultés de la langue française”. He spends nine pages on how and when to use capital letters, and typically French, only a page and a half on commas. Little pauses, breathers, are secondary to Emphasis and Hierarchy.

Dahl’s Law Dictionary is highbrow reading. I see him in a magistrate’s robes, austere. René Meertens Guide anglais français de la traduction is the most fun you can have with a dictionary, translating into French all the Anglicisms that make simultaneous interpreters choke in the booth. Meertens is a spy in a trench coat, gathering up seemingly untranslatable bits of English and decoding them for French speakers.

I have the original Old Master of picture dictionaries, Oxford-Duden, clad in a heavy plastic cover like a Buick’s owner’s manual. He sits on the shelf next to Le Visuel from Québec, bought on a whim for the gorgeous colors of his illustrations. Next to him is a gift from a client: my Pierre Perret, who sings trade slang to me, from the Plumber (je suis l’plom-bi ééééé, c’est un beau métier) to prostitutes and pimps, bus drivers, priests, dentists and meteorologists. I’m not surprised that thirty whole pages are dedicated to the jargon of café owners and barmen, given French creativity in quenching appetites and thirsts.

I have dozens of little soldiers in my ranks of dictionaries: insurance glossaries, market terminology, French administrative acronyms, architecture, security, social services, wine. My medical dictionaries pout on the end of the shelf for being less frequented. Despite all my reading on the subject, I cannot consider myself qualified to translate medical documents. Nevertheless, these tomes provide the name of a little known disease, or body part. They earned their keep when I translated some autopsies (no risk there…).

All of my beloved partners are there, on my bookshelves, to complement and supplement my bilingual memory. Even as they are gradually supplanted by electronic versions in cyberspace, I still love the weight of them in my hands, the silky smoothness of their pages beneath my fingers, and all the marvelous little annexes that know how to solve the rare grammatical problem, the use of the proper preposition, or a tricky spelling of the imperfect subjunctive.

One night when a raging Chicago thunderstorm took out the power to my home and office, in a yellow puddle of candlelight, I took my first Robert & Collins down from the shelf. His every single page shows signs of having been visited. I had spent hours there, snatching up words as a squirrel gathering nuts for winter. “I will use this one in the future, I will need this one some day.” Let me nibble on it a bit, to get its taste and smell. Just how many meanings does the verb “sentir” have?

I covered my Robert & Collins in a heavy sheet of upholstery plastic to survive the years, and he is the Grand Old Master on my shelf. I own his electronic offspring, always lighting up under my fingertips on my keyboard, but I still love visiting Grand Daddy’s pages. He was my first junkie indulgence. Twenty-five dollars back then was a lot of money to pay for one book! But, just as in my opium den of dictionaries in Paris, the price is not important.

While I am conscious of their gradual obsolescence, nothing electronic can replace them. These books are the map of my memories, the diaries of my linguistic journeys.

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