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Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
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is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at ross_murray@sympatico.ca
Posted 06.01.05
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

Suffers in the translation, or: The French have a word for it, but I just don't know it

I've written before about my French skills. At their best, they could be described as "pitiful," meaning people I spoke French to switched to English out of pity.

That's at their best, which was when I worked at the newspaper and used French daily. Back then, I could at very least make myself understood with minimal pointing and grunting.

But for the past three years, I've worked in primarily English environments. A few weeks ago, I was trying to have a conversation with a former colleague from the French daily. He stopped me and said, "You don't speak French much any more, do you?" This is like telling a dead person that his health doesn't seem to be improving.

I knew it would be difficult getting by in Quebec without decent French. What I didn't realize was that being functionally unilingual causes Quebec Split Personality Syndrome (QSPS).

You may be the brightest, coolest, LOLing-est person in your own language but placed in another language setting you risk coming across as boring or a moron or a boring moron.

For example, this is what I imagine a recent exchange with a waitress would have been like had I been speaking English:

"I'll just mention that there are free refills for drinks, and we also have a bar special, a bottle of Pantoufle Mauve for $19.99."

"How about free refills on the wine and we let the kids drive home?"

"Oh sir, you are most droll."

Later:

"Excuse me, miss? I'm afraid this salmon isn't quite cooked. It's a little too sushi for my daughter. Do you mind taking it back to the kitchen?"

"Oh I see what you mean. I'm sorry. I'll replace this right away. Is everything else okay?"

"Just dandy, thanks."

Not exactly Noel Coward but you get the idea.

Finally, there's this exchange receiving the bill:

"Where are you from?"

"Stanstead."

"And these are all your children?"

"Yup, far as I know."

"Again, you are most droll. I grew up in Stanbridge East and this reminds me so much of my family. Except we were three boys and one girl. You don't see big families like this any more. You have beautiful children."

"Thank you very much. We did our best. Of course, we had to get rid of a couple of the uglier ones to end up with this group."

"Stop! My sides are killing me!"

Now let's see how those exchanges really took place in French. For the purposes of clarity, I have translated them into English:

"I'll just mention that there are free refills for drinks, and we also have a bar special, a bottle of Pantoufle Mauve for $19.99."

"Yes."

"You'd like the wine?"

"No wine, thank you."

"Would you like something else to drink?"

"No wine."

(At this point, my wife took over.)

Later:

"Excuse, fish not cook."

"Oh I see what you mean. I'm sorry. I'll replace this right away. Is everything else okay?"

"Is well."

And finally:

"Where are you from?"

"We shop in Sherbrooke."

"You're from Sherbrooke?"

"Stanstead."

"And these are all your children?"

"Yes."

"I grew up in Stanbridge East and this reminds me so much of my family. Except we were three boys and one girl. You don't see big families like this any more. You have beautiful children."

""

"You can pay at the table."

So what's the remedy for QSPS? Well, you can continue to speak poorly and inaccurately but do so loudly and grandly (you won't be boring). Or you can go out of your way to practice your second language (you won't be a moron).

Me, from now on I'm just going to dine out in the States (I won't be hungry).

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