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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Simple comme “Bonjour

Alongside “s’il vous plaît” and “merci”, “bonjour” is one of the first words a person learns when studying French. One would think, then, that it would be among the easiest to translate. Think again.

The other day I had to translate a speech given by a senior manager of a company to a group of employees gathered at the start of a internal seminar. The speech started with “Bonjour !” Hands poised above the keyboard, ready to plunge in, I suddenly hesitated. “Hello” would be too casual and wouldn’t set any tone. “Good morning” would set the tone of the start of a working session, but was the speech actually given in the morning? “Good afternoon” would have a different feel to it, communicating less of a working atmosphere, or at least giving the impression that the work had already begun. “Ladies and gentlemen” would be used to address the public, not employees of the company. “Fellow employees” would be a little disingenuous and “Team members” would ring equally hollow. It would also depart more from the original “text” and move squarely into the realm of interpretation. How closely did I need to stick to the original text anyway?, I asked myself.

In the end, as silly as the question might have sounded, I asked the client at what time of day the speech was actually given. She said in the afternoon, but still wanted “Good morning”, because of the same issues I had tossed around in my head!

Does anyone else have a story about a very simple word or phrase that posed a problem in a translation?

Steven Sklar