Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Your mother was an autistic hamster
November 11, 2009 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 20 comments

Pierre Lellouche, the French Minister for Europe has caused a contretemps in Anglo-French relations when he was quoted on remarks critical of “Euroskeptic” Tories in the Guardian, a leading British newspaper.

“They have one line, and they just repeat one line,” Mr. Lellouche was quoted as saying of Conservative policy. “It is a very bizarre sense of autism.

“It’s pathetic. It’s just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map,” he said. Convervative policies had “castrated” Britain in the EU, he said.

Needless to say, such thoughtful observations did not go over so well among the British, especially among those representing British autistics and the ink has flowed viciously in the British press, and the French government backpeddling furiously and Lellouche apologizing contritelyy.

As usual, it was first blamed on bad translation, but since no translators were involved, it was then described as an off-the-record conversation, which the Guardian denies. As Nicholas Watt, the reporter who conducted the interview, blogged last Friday, “That is all a standard rowback by a politician embarrassed when their true thoughts appear in print.”

But despite Lellouch’s perfect understanding of English, those choice adjectives didn’t quite make the jump into English.  Watt argues in his blog that Lellouch knew exactly what he was saying.  Well yes and no. English speaking students of French soon become aware of the false friends between two languages separated by foggy channel of misunderstanding. Commenter martinirosso nailed it:

The writer is clearly not a linguist (in the trues sense of the word, rather than referring to a person who speaks other languages). If he were, he would know that native-like pronunciation and fluency have little to do with lexical accuracy or awareness of pragmatic effect. ‘Pathetique’ is a false cognate between English and the romance languages, as are ‘sympathetic’, ‘miserable’, ‘primitive’ and many other words. There are many highly proficient French speakers of English who use these words inaccurately in a pragmatic sense and who regularly make grammatical errors like ‘when I have been a student in London’ instead of ‘when I was a student in London’. L1 interference will always affect the most fluent of non–native speakers of any language. Journalists as a class tend not to notice this though. Perhaps I am using ‘class’ in a non-prototypical way here. And anyway, listen to anyone under 30 and you’ll notice that ‘sad’ actually means ‘pathetic’ – as in ‘you’re really sad’.

A good case for the first rule of speakers of a second language when delivering an insult. Do it in your first language.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with hamsters? Anglo-French vociferosity goes way, way back:

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