Always Lost in Translation

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I woke up before the whole house this morning and suddenly wondered why I chose to write this blog in English.

Well actually I know why. And all of you out there whose English is not a mother tongue know it too.

But I wonder… don’t you get frustrated sometimes not using your own language? I enjoy greatly the colossal number of possible words you can create just by adding a preposition or adverb to a simple verb in English… TO GET, for example, can be used in what seems like a never-ending amount of patterns and has so many different meanings. To get off, to get on with, to get down, to get by…

When writing, I do it right away in English. I guess, when you’re more or less fluent, that’s what you do. I don’t write or think in French, then translate it into English. But when I struggle with my vocabulary I tend to turn to French and search for an equivalent. Feeble words give me extra work to voice my impressions in details. I sometimes have the impression French is richer.

Steven Frank, the author of The Pen Commandments claims that English has 500,000 words with German having about 135,000 and French having fewer than 100,000. The simplest problem in comparing the size of different languages is inflection. Do we count “run”, “runs” and “ran” as three separate words? Another problem is multiple meanings. Do we count “run” the verb and “run” the noun as one word or two? What about “run” as in the long run of a play on Broadway? 
When counting a language’s words do we count compounds? Is “every day” one word or two? Are the names of new chemical compounds words?

The Oxford Dictionary says it’s quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages. The reason is historical. English was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German. English shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 English was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class for a considerable period, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church. Very large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. This melding of languages means English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family according to Oxford. English builds its vocabulary through a willingness to accept foreign words. And because English became an international language, it has absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources. (source)

When studying English as a Foreign language at University, I failed Translation on my second year. I always thought translation could never be a 100% perfect and still struggle with it. And I like the idea we have words in French which do not have an exact equivalent in other languages.

Take for example “dépaysement” – dé/paysé literally taken away from its country (the word encompasses the mix feelings of distress of a person placed in an unusual setting, an unknown environment, an unexpected situation). But I don’t see a perfect match in the English vocabulary. These are words for me with a whole story and images attached to it. These sorts of words are like a film poster. Or a Pinterest illustration. A word = a image.

Or “retrouvailles” – re/trouver (to find again). A get together with people we like and that we haven’t seen for a long time, which gives us a feeling of joy. There again it’s a whole story behind just a word.


I’m so glad I have known in my younger years pen-pals and love letters, and notebook diaries. The discipline of the mind which force you to put ideas and emotions into entire sentences is a luxury we don’t use enough anymore. When I see the Instagram feed of girls the age of my daughter, I feel so sad. It’s regularly a selfie with a caption – a quote or an absurd sentence taken out of its context, which has nothing to do with the photo. How utterly unfortunate to not use the richness and the unlimited power of a language – whichever it is.

To finish this post – which has not structure whatsoever!! – Ill just add a link to one of my favorite source of inspiration and reflexion: Flow. There are several international editions and they are all perfect for precious me-times. I guess many of you already know these magazines but in case you didn’t, I urge you to buy one or check their sites.

12 thoughts on “Always Lost in Translation

  1. A wonderful post. So much to consider. It’s a delight to come across those words, in any language, that convey a feeling or sense of emotion that you can only seem to capture fully in that word! As for posting in another language, I’m still translating in my head as I speak or write and hide that lag time with too many “Doncs” haha.

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  2. I envy your fluency in more than one language. Translation is never perfect – that is correct. The nuances are misinterpreted and In feel this when I read a translated text and someone reads it in its native tongue and we discuss discrepancies. Thanks for sharing this. Those two French words are wonderful examples and I would love to use the first one but could never pronounce it correctly. The closest to depaysement in English might be discombombulation?

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  3. I do think French has a poetic way of phrasing things, as does Spanishbut in a different way, and when studying languages I was always fascinated about how language reflected how its speakers thought – their mindset, their culture. I’ll never get over the difficulty of explaining your ailments to a doctor in French! ”I have heart ache” = I feel sick! 😂❤️

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  4. Unfortunately I find French difficult to master. Languages are not my thing. I adore English and really wish to study it better. Being in France now, I need to master at least some basic communication, but really it just makes me discomboblulated!

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