The board meetings were drawing to a close. The French directors had already risen from the board room table. At this point, my attention to the conversation could move into a more casual mode. I could physically sense my adrenaline level sinking, and the gentle onset of hypoglycemia that seems to come after a long day of interpreting. I always carry protein bars in my purse to counter my drop in blood sugar.
Adjusting his tie and buttoning his jacket, one of the French directors decided to end with some English of his own, always conscious of the linguistic divide between the French and American managers.
But sometimes, an attempt to reach across that bridge only seems to make the distance seem wider.
“Let’s win some money!” he said, like a coach to his team at the locker room door.
The confused and amused looks from the Americans meant that I needed to gently step in with an explanation.
The French: gagner de l’argent is what my colleague was translating into English.
The single verb gagner in French can be translated a few different ways into English: as “to earn, to win”, and more precisely, when applied to money, “to make money.”
The Americans in the board room all seemed to think that the Frenchman was suggesting they go out and buy lottery tickets.
I was particularly charmed by this little slip of the verb. One can say in French “se faire de l’argent” which is closer to “making money” but (between the use of the reflexive and the partitive) comes out sounding a bit like “let’s make ourselves a little (some) money”.
My French board member was specifically thinking of “earning” in his translation. Winning money isn’t a bad thing. I know a few Frenchmen who play the horses and the lottery. The lottery is mentioned in Balzac and Guy de Maupassant. But earning has a nobler connotation, because you can also earn a prize, like a Pulitzer or the Goncourt (“gagner un prix”). The French have a different feel for money and monetary gain. Somewhere in the French psyche, I think that there is a concept that wealth is finite, and some have it and some don’t. It is subject to dialectic, birth and politics. Americans dream of creating wealth, out of work or ingenuity. Money in the French culture, however, is always a bit “tainted”. Income is not discussed, a taboo subject. A French client once told me of an adage in his native language: Ne vous moquez pas des riches. Cela pourrait vous arriver.” Don’t make fun of the rich. It could happen to you. Wealth is seen almost as some kind of disease.
Some of the French businessmen with whom I have worked have shown a sort of embarrassed discretion about any sort of financial success. During a conversation with a long-time French friend who owns his own business, I felt comfortable enough to ask about his politics. He unbuttoned his suit jacket. “Look, Déborah,” he said as he held open one side of his jacket. “My heart is here on the Left.” And then he opened the other side of the jacket. “But my wallet is on the Right.”
We in the States could use a little of the French aversion to money, but that would be contrary to the famous American Dream. It is the very cult of the American Dream that has cloaked Donald Trump, the Republican Emperor Who Has No Clothes (no substance, no policy, no vision), as a potential statesman. Any time he compares himself to other candidates, it is always “look at how I’m winning in the polls” immediately followed by boasting about how much money he makes. Trump sees himself as the answer to America’s problems because he knows how to make money. Every argument he makes on his fitness to run the country is based on his personal creation of wealth.
He is more appropriately defined in French as a brasseur d’affaires, which translates as “tycoon” but comes from the verb for “brewing”, like brewing beer, cooking up a concoction out of a few ingredients. A common drink, without the finesse of wine, produced in large quantities, topped with a lot of foam.
Elizabeth Warren, in her famous “Factory Owner” speech, has a more French view of wealth.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for…”
[Elizabeth Warren, 2011]
The reality of making serious money is the stuff of the American Dream, and retains a fairy tale, fictional quality for all but the very few who are able to pull it off. And they are fewer and fewer these days. Americans could do well to adopt some of the French sense that money is unpalatable. Maybe then they wouldn’t be seduced by brewmeisters like Donald Trump.