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LEARNING FRENCH

11 everyday moments in France when you really need to say ‘bonjour’

The importance of saying "bonjour" in France really can't be understated and learning when to use it is the key to avoid being pegged as a rude foreigner, writes British writer in France Jackie McGeown.

11 everyday moments in France when you really need to say 'bonjour'
Photo: Faks87/Flickr
Bonjour is the first word we learn when starting the long, arduous path to being Francophone, and the one word most people can say even when they don’t speak French.
 
British writer in Paris Jackie McGeown, who runs the blog Best France Forever, explains why the word is so crucial to everyday life.
 
“Anyone who has seen a maman badger her reluctant child into saying it will know how important saying bonjour is to the French,” says McGeown.
 
“In saying it you are acknowledging the other person as an equal, a person deserving of respect. Saying bonjour is so important that they really should give a warning to visitors on signs at the border.”
 
Here’s her list of when you really need to say it.
 
In the boulangerie
 
If you only say bonjour in one of these places, make it the place where you buy your bread.
 
It is almost (almost) as important as your money here. In Britain it’s perfectly acceptable to walk into a bakery, smile a little, then say, “4 baps, please” without causing any offence. In France, you don’t need to smile but adding bonjour is mandatory.
 
Photo: AFP
 
Actually, any place you buy stuff
 
Say bonjour when you’re paying for things in supermarkets, chemists, market stalls… Anywhere money is exchanged basically. 
 
When you enter shops
 
Sometimes it’s not enough to say bonjour when you pay for things, sometimes you need to say it when you walk into the shop as well. This is usually reserved for small, privately owned places, and clothes shops. If you’re not sure whether to say bonjour or not, just wait for the staff to make the first move. You’ll probably have to say au revoir as well. Exhausting, I know.
 
To waiters
 
Unless you want to sit next to the toilet and be ignored all night, say the magic word. One café owner in Nice was so fed up with the rudeness of his customers  that he decided to vary the price of a coffee depending on how it had been ordered; the cheapest coffee is the one ordered with a s’il vous plait and a bonjour.
 
 
To any ‘gateway’ person
 
By this I mean principally receptionists but this includes anyone who has the power to let you go places. Security guards, secretaries, personal assistants are also on this list – think people with clipboards and you won’t go far wrong.
 
In waiting rooms
 
So you’ve said bonjour to the receptionist in the doctor’s surgery. Job done, right? Wrong. Because now you need to say it to the people sitting in the waiting room too. To a British person this is as natural as stripping naked and attempting to pirouette while covered in custard but if you want to be polite you need to suck up the shame and say it.
 
 
To your neighbours
 
In ten years of living in London I knew precisely zero of my neighbours. The most interaction we had was the exchange of slight nods/tight smiles. You can’t get away with this in France: you must say bonjour to them. If they’re older, then Bonjour madame/monsieur will score you more points.
 
To your colleagues
 
At a minimum you need to stick your head round the door of each office to say your morning hellos. Now if you work in a huge company, you’re not expected to say bonjour to everyone, just the people you work with. 
 
To your concierge / gardien
 
It is impossible to overstate the importance of bonjouring the person that looks after your building. Sure, they may be nosy/interfering/a source of irritation but the moment you need something done they will remember that morning three years ago in June when you didn’t say bonjour and it’s over.
 
To people you pass in corridors
 
Again, this is alien to Britons. But if you work in a huge building and you pass someone in the corridor you don’t know, you should say bonjour to them. If it’s a group of people deep in conversation you can give your bonjouring a miss but otherwise, say hello to that complete stranger!
 
In lifts
 
The quirky Gallic habits you'll pick up in France
Photo: Shutterstock
 
Enter the lift, say bonjour to whomever is inside, then say either bonne journée or au revoir each time someone gets out. This is super fun if you’re in a really tall building with loads of difference companies like in La Défense. To complicate this already unnatural behaviour, you don’t need to do this in all lifts, just in residential or work buildings. You don’t need to bother in, say, shopping centre or airport lifts.
 
Got that?  If in doubt, say bonjour!
 
(And if you’ve already seen the person that day? That’s what rebonjour – hello again – was invented for).
 
Jackie McGeown runs the site Best France Forever. Follow her on Facebook here for regular updates.
 
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FILM

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

If you've ever browsed French cinema listings or Netflix, you will instantly notice that the titles of English-language movies often have quite unexpected translations.

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

It is of course completely normal for the titles of books, films, TV series and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and get something that conveys the sense and message of the artwork, rather than going for a word-for-word translation.

But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns and – of course – the French fondness for English phrases, some titles may surprise you. 

The untranslatable ones

Some concepts just don’t cross international borders.

Groundhog DayUn jour sans fin (an endless day) – Groundhog day in the US and Canada is a festival celebrated on February 2nd that is said to predict spring weather.

The festival doesn’t exist in France, or in the UK come to that, but while British audiences just had to accept a film with a weird title, in France it was translated as ‘an endless day’, which more accurately describes what the film is all about.  

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsArnaques, Crimes et Botanique (scams, crimes and botanicals) – the film’s English title is a pun on the phrase ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which means complete, with ‘smoking barrels’ as a nod to the gun storyline.

Puns are pretty hard to translate in general, but a mixture of two puns obviously had the French translators reaching for the white flag. Instead they’re gone for a three-word list that offers a pretty fair overall summary of what the film is all about. 

The Shawshank RedemptionLes Évadés (The Escaped) – Frank Darabont’s slow-burn classic prison drama based on Stephen King’s short story couldn’t really translate into French, so you can’t blame them for not trying. Instead, they kept it simple.

Home AloneMaman, j’ai raté l’avion (Mummy I missed the plane) – another example of deciding not to bother trying to translate a phrase and just giving a straightforward description of what the film is about comes from Home Alone.

Con airLes ailes de l’enfer (the wings of hell) – the 1997 US film centres on a prison break aboard the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft, nicknamed ‘con air’, with ‘con’ the English abbreviation for convict (prisoner). Not having an exact French-language equivalent, the translators went for the frankly much more poetic ‘the wings of hell’.

Die HardPiège de cristal (The Crystal Trap) – Bruce Willis’s famously festive film gets a completely different name in French – and Spanish and Italian, come to that.

It gave French distributors a bit of a problem when the sequels came out, but they solved it by ignoring any links between the first film and those that followed completely. Die Hard 2: Die Harder translated to 58 Minutes Pour Vivre (58 Minutes to Live), while Die Hard with a Vengeance – which, in English, also pretty much glossed over Die Hard 2 for aesthetic reasons –  became Une journée en enfer (A Day in Hell)

The totally different 

TwilightLe saga du désir interdit (the story of forbidden desire) – Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen vampire romance novels, later turned into a film franchise, appeared in the English-speaking world with the series name ‘twilight’.

A French translation of this time of day of course exists (crépuscule) but instead French translators decided to spell out the theme of the series – forbidden desire. The books appeared in France under the titles of Fascination (fascination) Tentation (temptation) Hésitation (hesitation) Révélation (revelation) L’Appel du sang (the call of blood) and Midnight Sun.

The A TeamL’agence tous risques (the risk-all agency) – similarly with The A Team, French film distributors apparently decided that audiences needed to be clearly informed of the premise – a group of agents who would take on any mission, even the most risky.

Airplane!Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (Is there a pilot on the plane?) – they kept the name of the 1980 disaster movie spoof, surely? No, the French decided to rename that, too  … and don’t call me Shirley.

The improvements

No time to dieMourir peut attendre (death can wait) – if you didn’t know better you might assume that the cool, classy ‘death can wait’ was the original title of the latest James Bond film and ‘no time to die’ the awkward translation. In fact, it was the other way round.  

JawsLes dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) – the title of the Spielberg movie in English just refers to the shark, but the title in French refers to both the shark itself and the greater sense of the unknown dangers of the deep. 

The weird and/or sexist  

Mean GirlsLolita malgré moi (Lolita despite myself) – French schoolgirls are mean, bitchy and cliquey too, so there are plenty of options in French for a near-literal translation of the title of high-school drama Mean Girls.

Instead the translator went for the fairly problematic option of ‘Lolita despite myself’ – by which we can assume he never read Nabakov’s classic novel (first published in France, incidentally) telling the story of the paedophile Humbert Humbert and his victim Lolita.

Little WomenLes 4 filles du docteur March (the four daughters of Dr March) – it’s a film (based on a book) entirely about the lives of women, the four March sisters and their mother. Dr March barely features (because he’s away fighting in the American Civil War) but that doesn’t stop the French version from deciding that it’s all about him.  

The inexplicably sexy ones 

Sometimes English language movie titles remain in English but with different titles – for example The Hangover in France is Very Bad Trip. But there is also a distinct trend to just add the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ to an English language title to, well, sex it up a bit . . .

Not Another Scary Movie – Sex Academy 

Out Cold – Snow, Sex and Sun

Wild Things – Sex Crimes

Euro Trip – Sex Trip

The English titles for French films

With all the effort that goes into translating English titles into French, you might get a surprise when you start viewing something with an English title, only to find that it’s as French as a snail-filled baguette.

Family Business – the Netflix series about a Paris family who get drawn into international drug smuggling is smart, funny and completely French – it just has an English title.

LOL – although there is an American remake of the teen film LOL, the French version (starring Sophie Marceau) came first.

In France people use the acronym MDR (mort de rire or died laughing) in text speak, but the filmmakers obviously reckoned that the English acronym was well enough known for the title.

The film is entirely in French, with only a very brief foray into English when the characters go on a school trip to London (and experience rain and horrible food, naturally).

MILF – the American acronym MILF (Mom I’d like to F**k) really hit the mainstream thanks to the 2003 film American Pie and by 2018 French film-makers were confident that it was well enough known even in France to use as the title of a French movie.

The film depicts three older women who take a road trip to try and rediscover their youth and friendship – no prizes for guessing what they end up doing.

We asked our French friends if there is a French equivalent of MILF and no-one could suggest one. 

Canada

For all that French cinema distributors are happy to have the odd partially or wholly English title, strict language rules in French-speaking Canada mean that movies there often have completely different titles.

For example American Pie – released under its English name in France – became Folies de graduation (graduation madness) in Quebec, while Ghost also kept its original title in France but was released as Mon Fantôme d’amour (My ghost love) in Quebec.

. . . and the myth

There’s an urban legend that The Matrix appeared in France as Les jeunes qui traversent des dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil (young people who travel in dimensions while wearing sunglasses) but in fact the film appeared in France as Matrix, although it was La Matrice in Quebec. 

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