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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


Blogger Kaiserina said...

Hi Steven,

I think you should to go Ted Crump's Twelve-step Program to Recover from Translationese! :)))

I am obviously just kidding; your points are valid, and present what I believe to be the whole point in being a translator.

We make word choices based on our own feelings of the appropriateness of words in different situations.

But often the more simple the word, the more choices there are--and thus the translator's quandary.

My boyfriend, who is also fairly bilingual Italian-English (bilingual in the loose sense in that he speaks both languages very well and on a daily basis) is also laughing at me: "You spend the most time on the easiest of words when you translate!"

I guess it's hard for non-translators to understand the fact that the more words you know, the more choices you have.

Anyways, this is a great discussion. Too bad I have too many translations to do and cannot therefore participate in it!! Yet another quandary of the translating life.

Ciao ciao,
Katy Zei

9:38 AM  
Blogger kimi said...

G'day Steven,

I wonder if you should use 'Good Day' in this occasion. I am in Australia now. It is very common to use 'Good day' to start an address.

Bonjour happens to be 'Bon' + 'Jour' = 'Good' + 'Day'.


6:15 PM  
Blogger Mulleflupp said...

It seems that "Good day" is indeed a correct translation for the French "Bonjour" or the German "Guten Tag", although it has a kind of outdated, oldish connotation.

6:00 AM  
Blogger jameela said...


I have not yet entered into the world of interpreting, but I hope to one day soon.

I think what you speak about is one of the most exciting factors related to this job, well for me anyway.

While I was reading your article, I couldn't help but think that 'Welcome' might be an appropiate interpretation of Bonjour in this context. What do you think?


9:25 AM  

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