The impossibility of translating Bienvenue back

On Wednesdays, I take a French class downtown Chicago at Alliance Française.

It’s an advanced class with other eight students all speaking at a variety of skill levels.

I love taking the class. It’s invigorating and I’ve become more and more comfortable interjecting and pushing my own limits in terms of constructing sentences and expressing thoughts.

I spent a college semester in France 20 years ago, and my biggest regret is not finding a way to continue classes once I got back. I could be so much further along in bilingualism.

I’m not entirely sure how the students are placed in the class. There are people who can barely string a sentence together. There are people like me who make sentences, but I often have trouble making a paragraph.

There are people who speak in broken conjugations.

But the point isn’t necessarily a criticism of each others French. The experience is one of self motivation and courage. If you don’t have the courage to try and speak, I believe you’re wasting your money.

Truth be told, I have a tough time speaking English, and it’s my first language. My second language is non-verbal communication. My third is anger and my fourth language is French.

Often, when someone asks me a question (in English), a rush of thoughts bottleneck at the back of my throat and I end up stuttering a bit.

If someone asks me a tough question in English, I often have a tough start. So you can only imagine that a question in French causes even more of a bottleneck.

This French class is primarily a discussion session with a few grammar lessons balanced in here and there. So if we’re talking about how to define “Digital Identity” or how to determine the difference between the French Penal Code on Identity Theft compared to the lack of Swiss Identity Theft laws, I find myself at a loss of where to start in English, let alone goddamn French.

I find these French discussions invaluable, though. The exposure to other ideas in my own language is valuable. The exposure in French is even more, because attempting to speak in French, topics become more salient. I have to give ideas more thought.

I find myself rethinking topics over and over, even more than when I’m thinking in English. How do I think of this in English and how does that then translate into French. French doesn’t translate directly in many cases.

For example, yesterday we were walking into school and just before I went into my class, Tina asked me how to say, “Welcome back” to her teacher who was gone for two weeks in France. I turned my head into my class and interrupted my teacher and asked, “Comment dit-on ‘Welcome Back’ en Français? … Est-ce que c’est ‘Bienvenue back’?”

I laughed. He laughed. We all laughed.

My teacher tilted his head and said, “Il n’y a pas un façon de dire ‘Welcome back’ en français.” (There’s not a way to say welcome back in french).

That’s only a small example, but it might illustrate that there isn’t always a direct translation.

Last night, my teacher was explaining to another student — who tried to explain something in a direct English to French translation — that three out of four times, direct translations don’t work. It’s not bad to try, but it’s usually not the case.


My point is that to speak French, you have to really learn French. When I was there in college, I remember wanting to make French cooler — if only in my head. I found the rules to be restrictive. Even the vernacular used more words than I thought was necessary. I thought that if I applied slang concepts from my English into French, I could make French cooler.

Said and done, this was a stupid idea, because my french friends didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Just like almost everything in the world, the most effective approach to challenging situations is the long road. It’s taking the time to attack a goal with that seemingly Sisyphean chipping away at a HUGE task.

Anything worth a good goddamn takes time, practice, repetition, comprehension, agility, creativity and honesty. You know, everything that this current president has not done in his approach to “be” president of the United States of America.

When class finally started and we got started into last night’s lesson, my teacher noticed a student who wasn’t there the previous week. He looked at her and said, “Bienvenue back, Victoria!”

And we all laughed.