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Word-for-Word?

If you asked me what the primary thing I've learned in language school was, this is what I would say:


Language doesn't translate word-for-word.


I suppose I knew this in theory, but it has been so fascinating to experience. Behind any words and phrases that we use in everyday life is a sense of meaning that we are trying to convey. So, even if the words can translate from one language to another, the main question to be asking is not "How do you say this phrase?". Instead, it should be "How do you convey this concept?" One example comes from a simple introduction. If you asked a French speaker how to say the words, "How are you doing?", you would get something like "Comment tu fais?". However, this doesn't make sense in French. But if you asked how to inquire about someone's current well-being, they would say, "Comment tu vas?". Word-for-word, this means, "How are you going?", but the meaning is equivalent to saying "How are you doing?" in English.


It's a similar idea when asking someone's name. Generally, they don't ask what your name is. Instead, they ask "How do you call yourself?". And if you translate a common response to that question word-for-word, you would get, "Me, it's Jack."


So we've learned to focus on the concepts that we're trying to get across. Then, we learn how to communicate that concept accurately in French.


And, as if that wasn't quite complicated enough, sometimes a word-for-word translation actually miscommunicates. This means that there are words in French that look just like English words, but actually mean something else! In our studies, we refer to these as faux amis (false friends). Here are some faux amis that we've found (and this list is by no means exhaustive):


French English

Comment How (see above)

Déception Disappointment

Personne No one

Coin Corner

Pain Bread

Blessé Wounded


So, while there are times that we can basically guess a French word based on the English word, we still need to be careful!


But the idea of translating a concept instead of just word-for-word has also revealed some areas where French just has a better way of saying it. There are a few French words that we use now, even when we're speaking English!


For instance, the word chez translated into English comes out something like, "at the house of". So, you can say that I'm going chez my parents or chez toi (to your place). It just sums up the idea a little better. So we've adopted this into even our English conversations.


Another example is the phrase quand même. The best translation is something like "even so" or "still". It can express the concept that even though something may have changed, we're still going to come, or we're going to come "quand même". And for whatever reason, this idea has stuck a little better in our heads in French, and so now we've stuck into our English conversations.


The downside to this mixture of languages is that sometimes we mess up the word order, even in our mother tongue! Lucy has said things like, "It was good, that", which sounds a little bizarre in English, but is a totally normal thing to say in French. I've also caught myself putting question words at the end (again, pretty normal to do in French), like "You went to school, where?" Eventually, I think we'll straighten out all this craziness that's living in our heads right now...but maybe not.


All of this has been really fun to walk through as a family and to talk about when we say things weird (both in English and French). But it has illuminated for me the complexity of Bible translation, too. It is incredibly complicated to translate between English and French, which share a lot of similarities. Imagine taking a language spoken a couple of thousand years ago (Greek) and translating it into a completely unrelated minority language in West Africa! It's just way too oversimplified to say that we can translate it word-for-word.


Our goal is to be faithful to what is being communicated in Scripture and to work hard to understand the language and culture in order to convey the Word of God clearly in whatever language we work with. And that's an exciting challenge to think about!

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