The French Are Losing Something in Translation

March 18, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- The French have decided to take another stand against the spread of the English language. This time, rather than just creating French equivalents of English words and phrases -- to try to stop people from saying ''le stress'' and ''le cash flow'' -- the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur is in the process of making it illegal to use English in official documents, on radio and television and in advertising.

''Bonne chance, mes amis!'' I love and sympathize with most things French, a gift of the four years I lived in Paris. I think the French were right in recent trade negotiations to try to regulate the number of American movies imported each year and to protect their own film industry. And there is something to be said for Mr. Balladur's statement last week that preserving the

language is ''an act of faith in the future of our country.''

But, in truth, the French language cannot compete with English. It and the people who speak it are too rigid. English is sweeping the globe not because it can be beautiful in the hands of a Shakespeare or a Pat Moynihan, but because it can be both direct and flexible in the accents and new words of a Twain, a Tom Wolfe or, especially, some computer nerd we'll never hear of.

In reporting the latest evocation of the Maginot Line last week in the New York Times, Marlise Simons, who like most of the people in her native Holland speaks all languages worth knowing, offered a revealing list of English words annoying French leaders. Her list, including new French words or phrases recommended by the government's Delegation for the French Language as replacements for English equivalents, tells more about us than it does about them.

What it tells (and not only in France) is the story of American technological and cultural creativity over the past couple of decades -- all recorded in a language that now has more than 550,000 words, 10 times as many as other widely used languages. We are often down on ourselves these days, but the official French ''non-non'' list is an indication that Americans are still out there looking for new frontiers.

''Coussin gonflable de protection'' is what the government wants Frenchmen to use instead of ''airbag.'' Well, 60 million Frenchmen are not supposed to be wrong, but the word should be American because the idea, or at least the use of the idea, was American. And coussins gonflable de protection are in use around the world now because Americans -- who was Ralph Nader? -- made it happen.

Two of the other words the French government does not like are ''databank'' and ''jumbo jet.'' Well, there are stories there, too.

English has become the new language of modernity. To keep up in this world, you need new words to represent new things and ideas. That is why some of France's leading medical research facilities, including the Institut Pasteur, now publish findings in English. There is no time for translation on the world's information highways. Japanese and German researchers don't work in French, or even wait for translation into their own &L languages. They want it now and in English.

Having said that, and being proud of it, I will let some other non-non words on the French list speak for themselves: best-seller, brunch, fast food, marketing, talk show. Nobody's perfect, even us. Still, I rather doubt that the French, at least the young French, will use ''mais souffle'' and ''heures de grand ecoute'' for popcorn and prime time.

A secretary of the French Academy, Maurice Druon, speaking for literary notables whose charge includes protecting the language, said he thought that perhaps the time had come for language observers to monitor French radio and television to determine how much English is slipping into electronic converation. It's a little late for that, monsieur.

''Pas tres cool,'' was the reaction of a Paris disk jockey when he saw the list.

Where will it end? Possibly where it began when the Western languages developed across Europe. In Turkey once, I mentioned my difficulties in speaking and understanding French a teacher in Istanbul. ''How odd,'' she said. ''To a Turk, English and French are just dialects of the same language. You just pronounce them differently.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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