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August 5, 2014 12:04 PM   Subscribe

I really like learning French through comparisons, translations, and idioms. I also want to understand the idiosyncrasies of the language. What resources can I find for this?

I feel like I have a tin ear for the nuances of French. For example, when I read English, I can usually notice and appreciate when the author has picked an unusual word for effect, constructed a sentence in a way that echoes a famous English sentence, or dropped a few lines in a dialect or accent. In French, I usually understand the meaning and nothing more. This is analogous to the way I understand the connotations of “80 degrees Fahrenheit in San Francisco” (beach weather, very unusual for the area, and so on), but can’t directly understand “27 degrees Celsius in Bordeaux.”

This New Yorker article expresses what I’m looking for: an unpacking of the connotations of words and constructions of sentences. I especially like the process of comparing a lot of possible translations. The Coffee Break French podcast is also good for this, since they analyze specific French expressions.

Does a book exist that takes a novel (or song, or TV show, or art in some other medium) written in French and walks us through the possible translations of each sentence to English? English to French also works. Analyses of very idiomatic language and puns are even better. By “very idiomatic,” consider a line from “Adventure Time”: “We’re gonna lay down a chill jam.” How do you translate that?
posted by glass origami robot to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
The "immersion" feature on Duolingo involves users doing iterative, crowd-rated translations of literary works, Wikipedia articles, etc.-- one person translates, the next rates her translation and corrects it, rinse, repeat. There's a feature where you can click each sentence of the French text and see the successive English translations people have offered-- which both highlights the idioms that trip translators up, and shows the variety of eventual possible resolutions for translation problems. Not all the translations are great, but I've found that using Immersion in this way improves my understanding of written French quite a bit.
posted by Bardolph at 12:10 PM on August 5, 2014

Not a walk-through of possible translations, but a DIY alternative:

- Take works that are well known in one language (any Shakespeare work is a good example) and do a side-by-side reading of English and French versions. Practice writing your own translations, memorize the existing translations, get really familiar with them.

- Do you own any DVDs? Or are you able to rent any? Take a movie you know well in English and watch it with French subtitles on (and vice-versa).

- Pop music. Not one-to-one translations of English songs, but the gist is the same and you'll get to know the language of infatuation, etc. in slang terms and popular cliches. Plus, it's catchy!
posted by magdalemon at 12:41 PM on August 5, 2014

yes to pop songs. Like this one by Stromae and quite frankly all of his popular songs like alors on danse, papa outai, and tous les memes because he plays on words constantly. Again you can look for several translations. Here is another translation of Formidable. You can see where they took different reads on the words and meaning.

read up about verlan which is kind of French pig latin and a sort of generational slang (every generation verlan-izes its own words which then become the regularly accepted word over time)

read French magazines like Cosmo or French Slate Magazine

French movies with english subtitles. You can see how they translated it, where it matches, where it misses. Watch lots of good French comedies like l'italien, ma femme est un actrice and le prenom. Le prenom is the best because it's basically several French people in a room screaming at each other for 2 hours and it's hilarious.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:58 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is helpful... it is not translation and it is not recent (therefore not much on current idiomatic expressions), and it isn't an analysis! BUT it might be interesting to you nonetheless - Exercices de style by Raymond Queneau. A quick google will give you lots of information - but it's essentially a kind of Oulipo project in which he tells the same story in 99 different styles.

I know a few people who teach translation and what you are looking for in a book form is exactly what they do - workshops in which they discuss various options - but as far as I know none of them work with any particular textbook or manual. I'll keep my eyes out though.
posted by microcarpetus at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've gotten quite a bit of enjoyment out of reading the French version of The Little Prince after being familiar with the English one.
posted by NMcCoy at 1:32 PM on August 5, 2014

Take a movie you know well in English and watch it with French subtitles on (and vice-versa).

Even better, take an English-language movie you know really well and watch the French dub with French hard-of-hearing subtitles on. Reasonably often the dub and the subtitles will have been translated seperately, so you can get a double hit of the possible nuances and idioms.
posted by protorp at 2:34 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also recommend the podcast C'est la Vie. They do a word of the week. It takes one French word and explains all the different uses (including idiomatic)
posted by Gor-ella at 4:01 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the idiosyncrasies, I really love the Langue sauce piquante blog from Le Monde--their copy-editors talking shop. It is a very hard read, but is a very pointed examination of the edge-cases of French.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:22 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

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