On May 16, 2013, the following newspaper headline in English caught my eye:
Venezuela’s toilet-paper shortage ‘last straw’ for consumers
To get a sense of what this is about, here is the first line of the article.
First milk, butter, coffee and cornmeal ran short. Now Venezuela is running out of the most basic of necessities – toilet paper.
A couple of thoughts came to mind. First, how many non-native speakers of English understand what the ‘last straw’ here means? Then, is there a French idiom that conveys the same meaning?
This use of ‘last straw’ is an outstanding example of how tricky idiomatic usage can be in English or in any language. The fact that ‘last straw’ is in quotation marks tells us that it is being used in a special way and not in its literal meaning. There is no real straw here.
The reference is to the idiom “the last straw (or the final straw) that broke the camel’s back.” The image is that of a camel being loaded with straw until just one last straw is too much for the camel to carry.
The idiom is used to convey the idea of some final event or thing that causes a situation to change radically and usually for the worse. It is similar to the idea of the”tipping point”. “the breaking point” or “to have had enough.”
Is there an equivalent French idiom?
We know that most idioms and sayings do not translate directly from one language to the other. Actually some do. For example “take the bull by the horns” is in French prendre le taureau par les cornes. With a little adaptation, “put the cart before the horse” becomes the French idiom mettre la charrue devant les bœufs. But these kinds of translations are rare. An equivalent French idiom may or may not exist.
The French word for “straw” is la paille but that leads us nowhere. There is however something in French that does the job perfectly and uses a similar image. The whole expression is:
la goutte qui fait déborder le vase (the drop that makes the vase overflow)
Just like the image of the one last straw causing the camel’s back to break, here the image is that of a container being filled until one last drop causes the liquid to overflow. Let’s see how it is used.
In Quebec a number of school districts were complaining about the fees that they had to pay to the association representing them. In the context of government cutbacks and reduced revenues, some of the districts became very angry when they found out that the association had voted to give the president of the association a generous severance pay package. Here is what one person had to say:
«Ça fait plusieurs années qu’on demande de geler les montants de nos cotisations. L’an dernier, notre demande n’a même pas été entendue. Cette année, ils ont finalement accepté de le faire, mais ils ont voté une prime de départ à la présidente. Ç’a été la goutte qui a fait déborder le vase.»
Here is my rough translation:
We’ve been asking for years that the fees be frozen. Last year, our request was not even heard. This year they accepted to hear our request, but they decided to give a severance pay package (prime de départ) to the president. That was the drop that made the vase overflow (the last straw).
As you can see the person was “fed up” because that severance pay package was the “last straw.”
I should point out that in English “last straw” could be used all alone in quotation marks, whereas in French you would probably not use la goutte all by itself. How can we translate the headline using the French idiom? Here is my attempt:
Au Vénézuela le manque de papier hygiénique fait déborder le vase
Don’t mix up LE vase and LA vase
Since the word le vase ‘vase’ appears in the idiom, I’d like to call the reader’s attention to the importance of not mixing this word up with la vase. Here is my post on words in French that are spelled the same but differ only by gender. La vase is the mud or silt that lies at the bottom of lakes and rivers. There is also the adjective vaseux to describe something that is muddy or muddled.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.