The Errors of Their Ways: A French Lesson

By Lola Lemire Tostevin | April 5, 2012


I should state from the beginning that I have the utmost admiration for people who take the time and make the effort to learn a second language. Born into a Franco-Ontarian family, I don`t count myself among these people since I was not aware that I was learning a second language.  I grew up in a mainly English-speaking neighborhood and was oblivious to the fact that I was gradually displacing my French mother tongue.  I have often felt envious of Francophiles who were more proficient in French than I was.  Two such people were the late Barbara Godard and the late Robert Dickson.  It was fascinating to watch Barbara do simultaneous translations at mind-numbing speed. Robert Dickson, who was born into an English-speaking family, was a professor in the French Department at Laurentian University, taught and wrote in French, and won a Governor General’s award for one of his poetry books.  I was very fortunate and grateful for his outstanding translation of my first novel, Frog Moon, but it remains a source of regret that I wasn’t able to write it in French in the first place.

Thanks, in great part, to the Quiet Revolution and to the sovereignty movement, it’s been a while since Anglophones living in Montreal have dared tell a Francophone to speak “white” as in the Michèle Lalonde poem of the same name, written in the 60’s;  or, as in the 70’s, when a waitress informed me that she wouldn’t serve me unless I spoke English; or when I was told by a real estate agent in the early 80’s that I wouldn’t want to look for a house in Montreal’s Outremont district because I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by “Pepsis.”  The epithet “Pepsi” derives from the belief by Quebec Anglos that their French-speaking counterparts drank Pepsi because they couldn’t afford Coke, which was marginally more expensive in Quebec.  It was also understood that the slur applied to those same French speakers because a bottle of Pepsi was empty from the neck up.  The fact that this also applied to Coke or any other soda bottles didn’t seem relevant.  You can imagine the real estate agent’s stupefaction when I informed her that I was, in fact, one of those “Pepsis.” Once she recovered, she gave me the usual, sheepish response: “But you speak English so well.”

I suppose I speak English well enough, sometimes with a slight accent, and I do get along fine in French. I always spoke French with my parents and still speak it with relatives, friends and acquaintances from Ontario, Quebec, France.  Writing in French, however, is another matter.  I become aphasic.  Words and thoughts disappear.  Doubt besets every sentence, every turn-of-phrase.  What if I should make mistakes?  In my own mother tongue?  I suddenly see myself cast in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs, trapped within a limited vocabulary, frustrated by my inability to fully express myself in what should be my first language. Which doesn’t happen as often when I write in English.  Robert Dickson related to me once that he had had the same experience when asked to fill in for a colleague who taught Canadian Literature in English.  He too became aphasic before the class. The words and ideas were simply not there.

A few decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for Anglos to tell a Franco Ontarian that they understood and spoke French, but only the “Parisian kind.”  Does anyone remember that old canard?  Supposedly, the French that Franco Ontarians and Québécois spoke was simply not up to standard.  What was especially irksome was the authoritative and proprietary way in which this was related.  At a neighborhood party once, I overheard the host say that he had a wonderful handyman who had a delightful if peculiar way of expressing himself in Ontario French which was not “really a language.”  I wondered how those poor Franco-Ontarians managed to communicate.

If, as a young woman, I was too easily intimidated to confront a waitress, I have since grown impatient with a more insidious phenomenon. Strangely enough, it has to do with English-speaking people who proudly see themselves as “Francophiles.”

Several years ago, my pronunciation of the marketplace “Les Halles,” enunciated without making the liaison between the “s” and the aspirated “h” was corrected by an Anglo Francophile.  No sooner had I spoken the two words than this self-proclaimed expert raised his eyebrows a few centimetres and corrected me with “Les (Z)alles,” making the liaison as if the “h” was “muet.”  For those who do not know, or may have forgotten, when a French word begins with an aspirated “h” it is treated as if the word began with a consonant and does not require the liaison.  However, when a word begins with a mute “h” it is treated as if it began with a vowel and a liaison is made.   The list of mute “h” words is much longer than the aspirated “h” list and, as is usual with French grammatical rules, there are exceptions to both.   I don’t always know the reasons behind those exceptions, but in this case my first language comes to the fore, and I just know the correct pronunciation.

The correction from my Francophile friend was done with such authority, that for a brief second I doubted myself.  I felt the same way as when I had been told by a waitress to speak English if I wanted to be served.  But only for a brief second.  I overlooked his obvious scepticism. Les Halles, I reassured him, was pronounced without the liaison, without the “z” sound.

A similar occasion happened when my pronunciation of the rue Malesherbes–this time pronounced with the “z” liaison–was corrected by a Francophile who regularly spends long periods in France.  Again, this was conveyed with such authority that it sent me to the proper names section at the back of my Larousse: “MALESHERBES, [malzerb] Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon, magistrat et homme d’État français, etc…”  As if this wasn’t sufficient proof, for the next few weeks, whenever I took a taxi in Paris, I asked the driver the correct pronunciation of rue Malesherbes, and each time, the answer was the same. “Malzerb” they all replied.  All of them French-speaking.

Twice I`ve been corrected on the name of Marguerite Duras, once by an Anglo Francophile, and once by a German. I pronounced the “s” at the end of “Duras” but was informed that I shouldn’t.  In which case, several interviewers on French television would be wrong. Bernard Pivot, the excellent commentator/interviewer of such long-running programs as Apostrophes and Bouillon de Culture, favorite programs of mine, who interviewed Marguerite Duras several times, always pronounced the “s” at the end of “Duras.”  Furthermore, Duras herself is known to have requested that people pronounce the “s” in her surname.  But what does she know?  It’s only her name.

Unfortunately, some Francophiles’ authority is not relegated only to spoken French. Too often, when English Canadian writers pen more than three words in French, one of them is bound to be wrong.  A year or so ago, I was very pleased to receive in the mail a copy of Stephen Scobie’s The Measure of Paris, published by The University of Alberta Press. Scobie’s interest, appreciation and knowledge of the city have always impressed me.  He was, as far as I was concerned, a true Francophile who relied, as he himself admits several times in his book, on his “expertise of the flâneur” when in Paris.

It was clear from the beginning of Measure that much of it revolved around the writing of expat writers who had spent time in Paris, and I looked forward to visiting various landmarks as experienced by these writers.  It didn’t take long to realize, however, that it wasn’t necessarily other writers’ experiences of Paris that I would be visiting.  The measure mentioned in the title is mainly Scobie’s as he uses each writer’s experience of Paris to frame his own.  He is the standard by which other people’s writing of the city is measured.  Fair enough, I thought, and read on.

For the most part, Scobie’s book is anchored in a past gleaned from books and from what he calls “the persistent trope” about Paris.  His geographical markers begin with boulevard Haussmann, named after Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the well-known figure responsible in the mid-1800s for the Second Empire transformation of the city, considered the birth of modern Paris.  Except for a few contemporary Canadians, Scobie’s literary references are also mostly from the past: Glassco, Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Benjamin, Baudelaire Proust, etc…  All of which provide easy and comfortable associations, not unlike those explored in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, albeit Scobie’s are more literary, theoretical and analytical.  I must admit I was seduced, once again, by the opening shots of Paris skylines and famous landmarks in Allen’s film, but I also recognized that the postcard shots were intended mainly as clichés.  It’s also clear that only the very rich can afford to live in Woody Allen’s Paris.

What I didn’t find in Scobie’s book is an impression of life in Paris today.   He refers, in passing, to the traffic, the bustle, recent elections, exhibitions, films, but one never feels a present-day connection with the city.  He keeps reminding the reader that he “keeps a cautious distance,” that he is “a solitary man” or that he is “detached from everything” around him.  He writes that he has decided to “take care of himself,” which is all very well, but one is tempted to ask if taking care of one’s self is the most important aspect of writing a book about another culture’s city.  In fact, Scobie’s repeated references to the flâneur, the cliché so many writers have used in writing about Paris, invariably quoting Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a primal history of nineteenth century Paris, does indeed reinforce Scobie’s sense of detachment.  He is the observer glaringly aware of his own observing.  As such, his self-imposed flâneur rarely manages to break through to the other side of his detachment, to the Other as differing from himself.

This was not meant to be a critical review of the mournful and chronic nostalgia that permeates Scobie’s book.  Too many of us are guilty of the same transgressions when writing about Paris, including myself.  What confused me however, given the book’s authoritative tone, were the basic errors Scobie makes when he uses French.  He doesn’t, in fact, use much French, but the tone is so self-assured that when he does use it and makes errors they are all the more jarring.   When he writes about a steak “cuit au point” and tells us that it is a steak cooked to perfection, he errs both grammatically and presumptively.  It should be a steak “cuit à point” which is not, as Scobie states, a steak “perfectly done.”  A steak “cuit à point” is a medium-cooked steak.  People who prefer their steaks rare or well-done would not consider a steak “cuit à point” perfectly cooked.   It is a minor mistake that could be quickly forgotten if he hadn’t done an entire riff, a play-on-words on it, all based on an error. Other examples are his use of articles, “le” when it should be “la” or vice versa, as “le plage” which should be “la plage” or “La Zénith” which should be “Le Zénith.”  “Muguet du bois” should be “muguet des bois.  “Jour née” should be “jour né” although that would destroy another play-on-words of “journée” as a newly born day.  He doesn’t make any distinction between certain words such as “le baiser” which means “the kiss” and “la baise” which means—there’s no other word to use here—“fuck.”   According to Scobie these two words are interchangeable and create ambiguity.  In fact, these two words are not interchangeable, other than in Scobie’s mind, and the ambiguity is entirely of his making. This is particularly problematic for me since it applies to a section of one of my novels and saddles it with an unfounded interpretation, again based on an error.  There are more examples, but I think I’ve made, even overstated, my point.  I once read that Paris was the capital of illusionism. Perhaps, for some writers, basic definitions and grammatical rules don’t play a very important role in the detached world of illusions.

I recently received from the poet and food critic, Gerry Shikatani, an invitation to contribute to a series he was planning on food which he would name “Les Délices du Table.”  Why, I answered, would he give a French name to his series, especially given the fact that it is grammatically incorrect?  It should be “Les Délices de la Table.” But more importantly, why use a French title at all?  Will it be a French series on French food?  I presumed not.  Is it to give his series more cachet?  How could it if the title itself was grammatically wrong?  Is it another case of exploiting a stereotype?

I’ve recently read Shikatani’s latest collection of poems The Port’s Seasonal Rental whose setting is a cottage on Lake Erie, published by Mercury Press & TekstEditions. Scattered throughout the collection are thirty short French poems. Admirable, an English reader might say, but not so to a French reader.  There are in these thirty brief poems as many errors, basic mistakes which I’m not going to bother listing because I find this kind of cavalier attitude towards language disheartening.  In his acknowledgments, Shikatani thanks an Acadian writer for “his faultlessly perceptive work as editor” of his French compositions which is rather perplexing given the number of mistakes. You can only guess that either this editor didn’t bother editing the texts, or that the poems were printed from an unedited copy.  In either case, Shikatani did not have enough command of the French language to notice the errors himself.  In my response to his invitation to write a piece on food for his series, I suggested that given how most poetry books are printed on demand these days, perhaps he should have his book re-edited.

It isn’t unusual for an English press to make errors when printing texts in a language other than English. When my collection of poems, ‘sophie, was published by Coach House Press in 1988, before the days of computer editing, the blue lines I was sent were replete with typos/errors, mainly in the half-dozen French poems.  I corrected the blue lines, but when I received my author’s copies of the book two days before the launch, I discovered that they had been printed from the uncorrected proofs.  To Coach House’s credit, enough copies were reprinted in time for the launch. One typo remains, an apostrophe was omitted, but perhaps one is more acceptable than dozens?

Many successful writers have chosen to write in their second language. Many of them have claimed that doing so has given them fresh perspectives on a language and a culture that were not primarily theirs. I believe this to be true.  The books mentioned were written by English-speaking Francophiles mainly for English readers who may not notice errors and inaccuracies. For those who do notice, however, the errors seriously undermine the work of these writers.

Speakers rarely wish to be misunderstood and writers rarely wish to be undermined.  If only for CanLit`s sake, and for the sake of a supposedly bilingual country, writers and publishers who are not fully bilingual and who insist on writing and publishing in a language that is not their own should make sure they get proper editing from qualified editors.  Otherwise they should limit themselves to their own language or, at the very least, learn to be a little less authoritative about someone else’s.


2633 w. April 5, 2012







  • Lola Lemire Tostevin

    Lola Tostevin has published 3 novels, 7 collections of poetry and 1 collection of literary essays. Her latest poetry book, SINGED WINGS will be out in 2013. She is presently working on a collection of short fictions. She lives in Toronto.

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