Lost in Translation

“Yes, it’s software for your computer. Yes, Rosetta Stone. Like the stone in the British Museum.”

Another wedding guest wished to know how I had learnt my seemingly “excellent French.” We were both at a bilingual wedding—the bride being Norwegian and a Christian, while the groom was a North African and French Muslim. His family had flocked together and flown up here to Norway, and the hosts courteously honoured their presence by having all speeches translated into French.

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You see, the bride’s family happens to be exceptionally francophone, though the mother mistakenly described herself as heureux (the masculine form of “happy”), not heureuse (the feminine form). The North Africans were delighted by the image of us Norwegians being generally eloquent in French—though, of course, they had no idea it was a horrendously erroneous image. Having completed Rosetta Stone French Levels 1­­–5, I was one of the few (apart from the bridal family) who actually understood what was going on—and that gave me a sense of mastery and power. It sure felt great, and I was most content having invested time in study.

I became a bit concerned, though, when the maid of honour began her obligatory speech. It’s a Norwegian tradition that the best man and his female counterpart do their best to embarrass their newlywed friend during this part of the celebration. I suspected a certain difference in culture between Norwegian libertine females growing up in the seventies and the stricter, more traditional, Muslim ways.

So, after touching upon habits that had stuck, like secretive smoking behind the barn, the maid of honour vividly described how the bride had the idea of showering with the boys at a camp when they were 14, and that she was the only one brave enough to carry it out. Glancing over my shoulder I noticed that the Muslim delegation was smiling, as if on cue, from the Norwegians’ approving laughter; quite obviously they did not understand. After a few more revelations, the woman rounded off her speech, having honoured her maiden duty, and, in sympathy, we toasted the couple. We continued eating, some commenting that this speech apparently would pass untranslated. A relief, I think, to many.

In a flash, an aunt stepped up, carrying with her a few sheets of paper. Her French was superb. She wanted to share the words we had just enjoyed with our foreign friends. I recognised most of the words I had learnt from Rosetta Stone, but new terms, like fumée clandestine, were understood anyhow. I held my breath as the aunt closed in on the frivolous camp tales. Those who didn’t understand French were unaware of the moment of truth coming up; my own increase in tension wasn’t shared. As suddenly as the aunt had popped up, she finished, encouraging a general “Salut,” glass in hand. Phew.

After dinner, I asked the maid of honour who had translated her speech and selected what to keep and what to cut. She explained that since she didn’t know a word of French, she’d given it to the bride to translate. The bride was the only one she knew who could do this in style.

Sometimes peacekeeping can happen by setting linguistic boundaries, I thought.

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