Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Le Second Degré

Many years ago, working on a large in-house translation project, I supplied French translations to a group of programmers who were rebuilding the on-line Billings and Collections program for an American company.  The French I was asked to supply was a simple collection of fields on the screen, such as “Date”, “Time”, “Account number”.  As an indication of just how long ago I worked on this, the main consideration at the time was to convert the program from a text based interface to a GUI or “graphical user interface”, using all the little widgets that we now manipulate almost unconsciously on our computer monitors. They were “the latest thing” back then.

While the programmers had the task of modernizing access to information in two languages, my personal dilemma was coming up with French texts equivalent to the English, but with a crossword puzzle restriction:  only eighty characters per line.  This became a real challenge.

Although I had always had a sense of the quantitative differences between French and English, it was the programming SWAT team who was able to provide confirmation with real statistics.  These computer guys were an elite bunch from IBM, a generation before today’s post-Facebook software geniuses in their hoodies and jeans.  My team all wore suits and ties, removing their suit coats at their desks revealing white shirts, and were groomed like a squad of Marines: no beards or mustaches, and conservative haircuts.  Some of them had, in fact, begun their technical careers in the military.

What I learned from their statistical studies is that the average utterance in French is typically 30% longer than its English equivalent.  The team understood why I anguished over fitting my French translations into 80 characters per line.  Where one line on an English screen could allow for six or seven fields plus the blank spaces to be filled, the programmers kept coming back to me with the same old song:  “Any way to shorten this by a few letters?” 

The classic example is the American “DOB” for “date of birth”.  Three characters.  In French, I remember grappling with “Né le” and then wanting to be politically correct, going to “Né(e) le” in case the person filling out the form was a female.  But then the uncooperative software would leave out my accent mark and turned my rendition into nonsense.  Using “date de naissance” avoided the accent mark issue, but took up too many characters. 

Taking the statistical analysis of the two languages one step further, it also turns out that English has 30% more words than French.  I had always noticed that the English half of my bilingual dictionaries was consistently thicker than the French half.  The hard fact of more paper on one side was enough to prove that there simply are more words in English to be defined.  My Larousse book of French synonyms was visibly half the size of my English synonym finder, and bashfully included a subtitle, in smaller text: “with antonyms included” to beef up the volume and mask the fact that there just isn’t a slew of synonyms to be had in French. 

In practice, the smaller set of French word choices lends itself to the tricky area known as the Second degré.  In a language where one word, rich with underlying context, has several meanings, the Second degré is where the real art of speaking and understanding the French language, with endless plays on words, and subtle changes in tone of voice or a raised eyebrow, becomes the subtle secret handshake between two speakers.

When applied, the “Second degree” means one should not take a word or phrase literally, but look for the humorous aspect, delve into the underlying layers of meaning.  The image it evokes in my mind is a shadowy staircase into a half-lit cellar.  The French language has a second level where you must tread very carefully, or find yourself in that underground place, looking back up at the light outside and wondering how you had innocently stumbled into a completely different conversation.  Once one becomes a real player of the game, the geological exploration into hidden meanings beneath the surface can be the pathway to a few cultural treasures, the keys to really speaking French.

One evening, after a day spent interpreting in a factory for a group of machine operators from France, we were all sitting around having a drink before dinner.  I spent a month working with these men, and was happily accepted by them into their team.  They were already united by a certain camaraderie, cultivated while working together on the project at their home base.  But once they boarded a plane to the United States together, they became a synchronized, close knit soccer team, bound by the shared experience of a first exposure to America.  I was to become not only the technical assistant to accomplishing their work in the American plant, but their own interpretive barometer of cultural differences. 

As I sat with them sipping my sweet vermouth on the rocks, one of the guys complained that he had wanted to iron his shirt for dinner that night, but the ironing board in his room was … substandard. Temporarily dazed by the idea of a Frenchman’s dilemma with a wrinkled shirt, I watched him hunting around for the word in French to describe the problem, and then blurted out what I thought was the correct one.

« Branlante, la planche à repasser était branlante. »

A dead silence came over the room, and I saw all these pairs of eyes latch onto me simultaneously in surprise, as if I had just shouted “Boo!”

The Team Leader was the first to speak, with a flustered shake of his head.  “Exactly!  Yes, Déborah, that is the exact word to describe it!”  He looked around the room.  “She is correct, you know.”

The conversation took a quick turn to something else, and was forgotten as we left for dinner.

Of course, I had to find out what I had said wrong!  Hours later, back in my room, I ran to my dictionary to look up ‘branlant” which did, in fact, translate as “shaky, unsteady, tottering”.  Then I wandered into the basement of the Second degré and looked up the verb branler.   Oh, no!  To masturbate (used in the reflexive, naturally).  There were other phrases using the verb branler that merited two and three warning stars in my bilingual dictionary, none of them very polite expressions.

The next morning at work, after putting on my factory coverall and hairnet in the Ladies’ locker room, I hurried to meet the guys as they came strolling out of the Men’s Locker Room down the hall.

“So, gentlemen, I want to thank you for the vocabulary lesson last night.  I looked up branler in the dictionary.”  I was treated to roars of compassionate laughter.  Overnight, I had become “one of the guys.”  For the duration of the month that I worked with them, I was amazed at how many things in the factory were “shaky” and “unsteady”, how many of the hand tools in the tool boxes were referred to as the “shaky tool”.  I would learn every possible use of the verb in all of its most coquin of renditions. 

If I had to describe that ironing board now, I would cautiously say “elle n’est pas très stable…” 


Not very stable, like the sometimes shaky ground of French context.