May 21, 2005

"Est-cela si beaucoup de demander?"

Like Geoff Pullum and many others, I deal with air travel by reading. Before heading out, I try to visit the bookstore and buy a few mysteries or SF novels or similar things. If I forget this crucial step, or I don't have the time, I need to make do with what happens to be available at the airport. Often this works out well. But on a trip to Pittsburgh last week, the results were interestingly mixed.

The book I settled on was an SF debut by Elizabeth Bear, "Hammered", published by Bantam in January of 2005. There were a lot of things about it that I liked, including a setting in post-apocalyptic Hartford, Connecticut -- near where I grew up -- and an escaped AI chatbot based on Richard Feynman. However, there was one thing about it that really troubled me.

The central character is a former Canadian military pilot named Jenny Casey. Despite her name, she's from a Montreal francophone background, and so are several of the other characters. Their internal monologues and many of their conversations are liberally sprinkled with French words and phrases. There are a few indications of familiarity with French Canadian features, like the spelling "marde" for merde. But most of the French seasoning appears to have been created by translating idiomatic English phrases nearly word-for-word.

For example, on p. 200, a pre-teen girl named Leah Castaign asks her father for something:

She took a breath. "Can I ask you a huge, gigantic, massive favor?"

"Comment massif parlons-nous de?"

In English, if someone asks you for a "massive favor", asking "how massive are we talking about?" is an idiomatic response. Now I blogged a while ago about Ruth King's documentation of sentences like "Le gars que je te parle de" ("the guy that I'm talking to you about") in French from Prince Edward Island; but she indicated that this kind of preposition-stranding is unthinkable in Montreal as well as in standard French; and even on Prince Edward Island, I wonder if Bear's French calque for "how X are we talking about?" is likely.

On p. 301, Jenny Casey is going through physical therapy, and not enjoying it. Her thoughts go like this:

I want a drink and a quiet window. I want to take Gabe out and sit in the sun and drink beer and eat poutine and get silly with the girls. Est-cela si beaucoup de demander?

Again, "est-cela si beaucoup de demander" seems like a word-for-word rendering of English "is that so much to ask". My command of French -- Canadian or otherwise -- is not very good, but it doesn't seem right to me. Google tends to support me, in that {"so much to ask"} get 28,000 hits, while {"si beaucoup de demander"} gets none at all.

These are not isolated examples -- there are dozens of others, sprinkled throughout the novel.

So there are three possibilities here:

1. Bear knows an undocumented variety of radically English-influenced Canadian French.
2. Bear is imagining a future (45-55 years from now) in which that kind of Canadian French has come into existence.
3. Bear knows a little bit of French, which she eked out for purposes of this book by writing phrases in idiomatic English and translating them (almost) word-by-word into French.

My money is on (3), and so I have a question: doesn't Bantam (a division of Random House) have editors that can find someone who knows Canadian French to help out in a case like this? It would be very easy for someone to substitute reasonable translations. And what about the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and the 13 participants whom Bear thanks by name "especially but not exclusively" as "first readers"?

This is a small flaw, but it really degrades the book for anyone with even the marginal sort of command of French that I have. It's surprising that someone along the way didn't notice the problem and find a way to help fix it. There's a sequel due out in a few months -- is Dell's editorial staff still asleep at the wheel? Or should I say, imitating Bear's method, dormant à la roue ?

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 21, 2005 11:47 AM