Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cultural interference in languages/Interférence de la culture dans la langue

When American companies started using the Best before formulation on food and food packaging, the world took notice and little by little, the same formulation appeared elsewhere. Thus, when the Canadian authorities set about implementing this system, they went with

Best Before and in French - Meilleur avant

While in English, one can use a comparative without formally mentioning the two compared products, according to French grammar, the two things compared must be mentioned. (so to a Frenchman or someone from another French-speaking country, this expression sounds somewhat strange).

In English, the sentence does not say This product is best before. There is also no explanation of what best means.

On packages from France, the DLC acronym is used; it stands for Date limite de consommation (deadline for consumption, i.e. should be eaten before…). The French is much more categorical – one should not eat the product after a certain date. It is like saying this passport expires on….. So it is not valid after that date.

A similar confusion is found with the Yield to Bus Act enacted by the Province of Ontario in 2004. Here is an explanation of how this works:

“When a bus displaying the Yield to Bus sign signals its intention to leave a bus bay by activating the left turn signal, drivers approaching from the rear in the lane adjacent to the bus bay are required to slow down or stop to allow the bus to re-enter the lane, unless it is unsafe to do so.”

So the original idea is to yield the right of way, or yield in short. The verb céder in French has somewhat different meanings:

- to give up (to let somebody have something)

- to sell or dispose of

- to give way to somebody (céder le pas à quelqu’un)

- to give in (sa mère lui cède en tout – his mother always gives in to him)

In the language of driving legislation, one speaks of “donner la priorité à quelqu’un”, to give someone the right of way.

Unfortunately, both Meilleur avant and Cédez are here to stay and the public at large has come to recognize and understand these expressions. The astute translator will have to take into account the culture of the end-reader and convey the expression in that reader’s understanding.

No comments: