Actual French in "The Class" questions
February 21, 2009 9:15 AM   Subscribe

French/English slang in "The Class" (Entre les murs):
What terms were they really using (in French) when the subtitles said "honky" and "skank"?

I only know a few words of French, and like most subtitled movies, I kinda switch off my ears and concentrate on reading. So what were they really saying when those words were on screen? The same?

For "honky" I thought perhaps "ofay" but my research is showing that word's source to be African, not French. And I was surprised the subtitles said "skank" since that word's not that common, and more often I hear its adjective form. (I would've expected "slut" in a high school setting.) Later, they said to them it meant "prostitute" but my understanding of this term is specifically an unclean, unhealthy prostitute. Maybe some users of the term aren't so discriminating?
posted by Rash to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This amazon review says the skank-word was pétasse.
posted by CKmtl at 9:32 AM on February 21, 2009

Well, I haven't the movie, but from the bits I caught on Youtube, the word "pétasse" seems to come out pretty often. That would be a tart or a slut. They also use the word "naze", which could mean stupid or honky.

Subtitling a film like "the class" is difficult because it requires someone that is well versed in two forms of vernacular. My guess is that the translator was a native French speaker with a very good grasp of English, but not necessarily up to date on the usage of certain English words. The words are technically correct, but as you point out, rarely used nowadays.
posted by bluefrog at 9:43 AM on February 21, 2009

I've read several reviews of The Class which have debated whether "skank" is a good translation of "petasse". This must have been a really tough thing for whoever wrote the subtitles. So much hinges on the connotations of the word, and there's not necessarily going to be an English word with exactly the same connotations. As a non-French-speaker, I felt like I had to take the movie's word for the it that this was a word that meant "rude girl" to the teacher and "prostitute" to the kids.
posted by craichead at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2009

Sorry for the double-post.
Later, they said to them it meant "prostitute" but my understanding of this term is specifically an unclean, unhealthy prostitute. Maybe some users of the term aren't so discriminating?
I think that this is actually a really central part of the movie. It's not that some people are discriminating and some aren't. It's that the teacher and his students come from different cultures, and they don't understand language in precisely the same way. The girls behaved badly and the teacher lost his temper. Ordinarily, that would not have been a big deal. But the whole incident was massively amplified because the word he used, petasse, meant totally different things to the teacher and his students. The teacher didn't focus on the sexual connotations. He just thought he was calling the girls rude. That's presumably the connotation that the word has in the mainstream French culture from which the teacher is supposed to come. But to his working-class immigrant students, the word has totally degrading sexual connotations. The teacher thought he was saying "you were acting like an asshole," and the students heard him saying "you were acting like a dirty whore." And that's hard to translate into English, because there isn't a word in English that means "asshole" to middle-class Anglo-Americans and "dirty whore" to working-class immigrants.
posted by craichead at 10:06 AM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

And this disjuncture between the two understandings is emphasized when the incident comes before the principal and disciplinary committee. They're concerned, yes, but not so outraged as any parent/teacher/official would be if they had heard a teacher call a student a "dirty whore"!

This was a fantastic movie BTW.
posted by Marquis at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2009

Sorry for the double post.

Not a problem, thanks for the info! Upthread, I forget the obliigatory IMDb link.
posted by Rash at 3:52 PM on February 21, 2009

I watched it without subtitles, but I think that I can still answer this because the words "honky" and "skank" could have only been used in a few places.

"Honky" was a translation of "babtou," which is verlan for "toubab," which is an African word for a person of European descent.

Also, in the movie, around the time they say babtou, they are also complaining about how the teacher always using European names in his examples. So he asks them for a name to use instead, and I think one of the names they suggest (that starts with a g) also means honky, but I'm not sure on this point.

And I think it's settled that "skank" was pétasse, but it should also be noted that French use "pétasse" very similarly to how we use "bitch" in English. It can refer to someone who is rude, pretentious, being an ass, etc. And so it's not surprising that it would be something he would say in the heat of an argument; it would be similar to an American calling someone "bitch" or "asshole".
posted by helios at 4:17 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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