One of the challenges of learning to speak French fluently is how to spontaneously choose the right words and expressions to convey your ideas, Often we ask ourselves, “How would I say this in French?”
An excellent learning strategy is to study how professional translators answer this question.You start with something written in English and see how a native speaker, the translator, transforms it into idiomatic French.
Since we are interested in spoken French, we will take an example of spoken English, or at least something that resembles the spoken language.
Let’s look at a piece of dialog from the excellent novel, The Brethren, by the contemporary American author John Grisham. In this passage, a character is speaking about a threat to the world from Russia:
“The coup is right around the corner, Mr. Lake. Our worst fears are coming true. Every aspect of Russian society and culture is cracking and crumbling. Democracy is a joke. Capitalism is a nightmare. We thought we could McDonaldlize the damned place, and it’s been a disaster. Workers are not getting paid, and they are the lucky ones because they have jobs. Twenty percent do not. Children are dying because there are no medicines. So are many adults. Ten percent of the population are homeless. Twenty percent are hungry. Each day things get worse.”
Now, here is the same passage from the French translation by Patrick Berthon of the novel under the title L’engrenage:
” Le coup d’État est pour bientôt, monsieur Lake. Nos pires craintes se réalisent. La société russe craque de toutes parts et se désagrège. La démocratie est une farce, le capitalisme un cauchemar. Nous croyions pouvoir imposer l’enseigne McDonald’s dans tout le pays : le résultat est désastreux, Les ouvriers ne sont pas payés ; ils ne sont pas à plaindre, ils ont du travail. Ce n’est pas le cas de vingt pour cent de la population. Des enfants meurent, faute de médicaments ; de nombreux adultes aussi. Un Russe sur dix n’a pas de toit, un sur cinq ne mange pas à sa faim. La situation empire de jour en jour.”
What can we learn by comparing the French to the original translation? The most important thing to notice is what words are chosen in French and how they are used. Here are some things to notice:
1. See how “…is right around the corner” becomes “..est pour bientôt.”
2. “Our worst fears are coming true.” becomes “Nos pires craintes se réalisent.” Notice here the use of the pronominal verb “se réaliser.”
3. Notice the many examples where English does not use an article and French does. “Democracy is..,” “Capitalism is…”Workers are…” “Children are…” all require the definite article or determiner in French : “La démocratie est…” “Le capitalisme un…” “Les ouvriers ne sont pas…” “Des enfants meurent…”
4. “,,,McDonaldlize the damned place” becomes “imposer l’enseigne McDonald dans tout le pays.”
5. “..and they are the lucky ones…” becomes “…ils ne sont pas à plaindre…”
6. ” Twenty percent do not.” becomes ” Ce n’est pas le cas de vingt pour cent de la population.” Notice here that “percent” in English is “pour cent”, two words, in French.
7. “,,because there are no medicines…” becomes “…faute de médicaments…”
8. “So are many adults.” becomes “..de nombreux adultes aussi.”
9. “Twenty percent are hungry.” becomes “..un sur cinq ne mange pas à sa faim.” Notice how the translator has cleverly rendered “twenty percent” by “un sur cinq.”
This short passage should give you a good idea of how French really works. The next step is to put the lessons learned into developing your own speaking fluency in French. Here you have a bunch of ways of saying things that you can make your own. So, reread this passage many times until you really feel that you can use various expressions spontaneously. And voilà, you are starting to think in French.