As a hobbyist translator and someone with a general interest in languages, I always enjoy a good mistranslation roundup. Not just nitpicking on what idiom best conveys some tricky expression in another language, but plain outright mistranslations (French faux amis, for example).

Translators working on closely related language pairs such as French and English (as opposed to more distant ones, like Japanese and English) have a tendency to be writers first, translators second. Their actual mastery of the source language is sometimes surprisingly low, but (for good or bad reasons) editors seem to think that the quality of their written production in the target language can make up for their weakness. This is an especially common occurrence in English to French translations, where French speakers barely English-fluent have been known to translate major English literary works (not a new practice either: Baudelaire‘s famous translation of Edgar Allan Poe, while delightfully written, is so incredibly riddled with errors that it could be a new work in its own right).

The smug pleasure of pointing out errors in the work of so-called professional translators can only be beat by one thing: the even smugger pleasure of pointing out errors in said corrections…

In a recent Guardian article, Germaine Greer plays on a rather trite cultural tropism: “Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative“.

Yes, we get it: Proust’s writing is long, convoluted and not exactly packed with action. I am far from his greatest fan and would not even put him in my personal top ten of French authors, but criticising his style on length and paragraph count is about as subtle as calling Picasso’s paintings a bunch of kid scribbles by a guy who couldn’t draw a normal face.

The translation comment, however, is what grabbed my attention. Ms Greer chose to illustrate the poor quality of Proust’s English translations with a sentence drawn from the fifth volume (La Prisonnière, aka The Captive):

In order to prepare for my upcoming 3-month stay in Berlin, I have started brushing up on my terminally rusty German: buying a couple books and checking out online newspapers somewhat regularly (more than just once every three months when I am curious to know the Frankfurter Allgemeine‘s position on some European issue).

Much to my surprise, I not only still remember a sizable chunk of German despite over 10 years with zero practice, but my level has in fact improved since then. That is to say, I am nowhere near fluent, nor able to remember half the vocabulary I once knew. However: turns of phrases and idiomatic expressions that I know would have me staring painfully for minutes on end back in high school, now seem perfectly natural to me… Most phrases hit the comprehension part of my brain directly, without going through the lengthy “decoding word-by-word and digging up through memory for idiomatic equivalent” phase. In some way I have magically become more “fluent” than I was, when last I studied ten years ago.

At first, I just assumed my memories were being overly modest and that, maybe, I was not the teutonic classroom failure I remembered being. Then I thought back of the long evenings laboriously spent stringing together 20 lines of homework, endless hours of classroom procrastination, barely coasting by, year after year, and the extremely mediocre A-level — or French equivalent thereof — grade that ensued. There is ample objective evidence that I really sucked as a high school student of German and it appears that I suck ever so slightly less, now that I am resuming ten years later… Which goes squarely against the widely accepted notion that foreign language acquisition skills decrease with age.

In proper logic-obsessed OCD fashion, I tortured my brain for days, trying to come up with a rational explanation for this, which did not involve being abducted, probed and experimented on, by German-speaking aliens.

And I think I found it…

The better half of the years spent studying German, were when I lived in Paris. I therefore studied in French. Grammar explanations, bilingual vocabulary lists, chatting with classmates, thinking about the ongoing lesson, were all done in French.

Nowadays: I live in Kyoto and there is very little French language in my life. Lots of Japanese, of course, but I would venture that well over 90% of my thoughts and interactions occur in English. When I read up a text in German, that voice in the back of my head, trying to make sense of what I am reading, is speaking English, not French.