December 14, 2004

Encore une fois, dude

Among all the things said and written over the past few days about dude, the one that interested me most was an observation by Céline at Naked Translations (French version here):

I've come across dude when subtitling American films/TV series, and I often chose to not translate it. I just don't think there is an appropriate equivalent in French. The best solutions I can think of, in some cases, are mon pote or mon vieux, but these two expressions just aren't as flexible in their meaning as dude, which can be used to express a variety of emotions. For a start, you couldn't use them on their own, they generally end a sentence : "Ça va, mon pote?" (are you ok, dude?), "Tu veux aller boire un coup, mon vieux ?" (fancy going for a drink, dude?).

Once a proofreader inserted a mec (bloke, dude, guy) in my translation. I just don't agree with that. I know that's what the dictionary says, but it just doesn't sound natural, I've never heard a French person use mec in the same sense as dude. As this word has only ever cropped up in my subtitling work, I have no qualms in not translating it when it is part of a sentence, as it is difficult enough to convey crucial information in the limited space allowed for subtitles. Besides, dude often indicates a certain level of familiarity between people, and this is conveyed on the screen. When it is on its own and used to express an emotion, I chose an equivalent interjection in French : for example, Ça alors ! (my goodness !) to express surprise, Tu plaisantes ? (you're joking ?) to express incredulity, etc.

One note that doesn't ring true: is there any speech community in which both fancy (for "feel like") and dude are current? And again, "my goodness" doesn't seem like a preferred expression of surprise in the dude demographic. And while I'm being fussy, it seems over-formal to me to retain are in "are you ok, dude?"

I'm not a speaker of dudish, so I could be wrong about all of these, which are really quibbles about the details in any case. The details matter, of course, but what I liked about Céline's post is the principle of coming at the problem of what words mean from the angle of how to translate them into another language. This is often enlightening, but never more so than when the word is mainly indexical of group membership and interpersonal attitudes.

In the end, though, it's a little bit surprising that dude hasn't been borrowed tel quel, especially in light of this other anecdote from Céline's blog.

[Update 12/15/2004: Lal Zimman emails that "There are indeed now speakers using both fancy and dude! Dude has made its way across the pond ..."

Lal adds that "As a native speaker of dudish (ou bien dudais,) I would confirm your intuitions about dude-users not also using phrases like "my goodness!", but I thought CÚline's point was that rather than using dude, because French has no word that conveys the pragmatic meaning of cool solidarity, she uses words that convey the same secondary meanings, e.g. surprise, and then her parenthetic comments were a translation. So, I didn't think that she was implying that a dude speaker might have said the thing in the parentheses, but rather that the pragmatic meaning was partially the same. "

Well, my sociolinguistic judgments about French are next to non-existent, but FWIW ça alors doesn't strike me as a very dudish way to express surprise. Sites like this and this don't make this expression seem very promising as an index of cool youthful solidarity. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 14, 2004 08:44 PM