Monthly Archives: November 2010

Supermarket French, Chanson French, and Arabic in repose

The French of Anna Sam and that of Juliette Gréco could hardly be more different.

The French of Gréco (pictured) is moody and melodramatic, as befits this veteran chanteuse. Her pitch swoops to low octave depths and her Rs rrrrroll,  as she sings of love, betrayal and Paris. The songs sound like personal confessions, but most are not:  she became famous by singing the poems and lyrics of Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and others. Now in her 80s, Gréco is bringing her über-Frenchness to a London stage.

Anna Sam records the mendacious and the mundane that she overhears at the supermarket checkout.

Sam recently retired after eight years working as a hôtesse de caisse (cash till hostess) — that was her official title. Less officially, she was a beepeuse (a woman who beeps).  She was doing it to bankroll her university degree in French literature — not that the customers knew, or would have cared.

Anna Sam overhead humanity at its meanest and most idiotic. Couples surreptitiously kissing in the frozen food section, or having sex next to the detergents. People so umbilically attached to their mobile phones that that they didn’t stop to say “please” or “thank you.” Mothers telling their children: “If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll end up a like that lady behind the counter.” And when she clocked off and went home, Sam couldn’t stop hearing the beep…beep…beep of the scanner. She recorded her observations in a blog, which became a book, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (translated into several languages including English).  Her fame may yet spread, with talk of a movie.

Also in the pod, the UN Security Council resolution that got lost in translation. Resolution 242. is one of the Security Council’s most famous documents, the so-called land-for-peace concept in the Middle East. The French and English versions don’t quite say the same thing. The result? Confusion and conflict, with no end in sight. Not a good advertisement for translation or multilingualism.

And to round things off, we hear from the founders of Meena, an Arabic-English bilingual poetry journal, out of the U.S. port of New Orleans and the Egyptian port of Alexandria. (Meena means port of entry). Arabic never did sound so sweet.

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Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

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