x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Faux amis, where the streets are paved in salmon

Faux amis are those literal translations that turn out to be wide of the mark. The genre has already been discussed in this column, but within the family of these false friends is a special place reserved for restaurateurs and their well-meaning efforts to present menus in different languages.

In the sleepy French Alpine town of Sisteron, perhaps because everyone seemed to be taking lunch so early, the plat du jour at the Brasserie des Cascades was sold out long before 1pm. Fortunately, that left a wide choice from which I considered, before deciding against, the "pavement of salmon" or the "warm goat", delicious as I am sure both would have been.

Faux amis are those literal translations that turn out to be wide of the mark. The genre has already been discussed in this column, but within the family of these false friends is a special place reserved for restaurateurs and their well-meaning efforts to present menus in different languages. What could be more natural, the patron of the brasserie must have thought, than to translate pavé as the French-English dictionary translates it, namely as a paving stone? In Collins, the first dictionary that I consulted, the culinary definition came almost as an afterthought, as in a slab of steak or biftek (Collins preferring that mouth-watering early example of Franglais).

The warm goat came into the reckoning with the help of a misplaced comma separating the goat - and its body temperature - from the cheese (chèvre chaud). Needless to say, there was no evidence visible from my table on the terrace of pavements being dug up or goats warming themselves in the sunshine The night before this meal, at our little hotel perched high on the mountainside above the town of Barcelonnette, the choice of desserts had included something translated as "cut of ice two balls". I know I make much more serious errors in French, but it was in a spirit of trying to be helpful, rather than in a fit of pedantry, that I mentioned it to the hotelier. With the exception of the number, every component of the phrase was wrong, even though most customers would quickly realise, even without a word of French, that they were being offered two scoops of ice cream.

Anyone who has eaten out abroad often enough will be able to call to mind amusing translations of menus or hotel services. At his blog ojohaven.com, an American Francophile, Phillip M Eberz, has a "linguistic fun page" on which a correspondent reports finding, near Calais, pâté de maison offered alternatively as "our pie". Mr Eberz tells of a Polish hotel inviting orders for "limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger", "roasted duck let loose" and "beef rashers beaten up in the country people's fashion". An early translation of Coca Cola in China - pronounced ke-kou-ke-la - apparently meant either "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax", depending on the tone, and even the drinks company's ingenious staff had to search long and hard before coming up with ke-kou-ko-le, phonetically a close match and conveniently defined as "happiness in the mouth".

Among the UAE's cosmopolitan population will be plenty of people who can point to the process working both ways. My wife remembers, from her earliest days in England, teaching French to a young girl who, during one lesson, declared herself amoureuse du fromage, by which she almost certainly meant she was fond of a piece of cheddar rather than in love with it. But then, I could remind her of our first evening out at a restaurant. In keeping with French preferences for red meat to be cooked very rare, that is to say barely threatened with a frying pan or grill, she ordered a "bloody steak". It is a matter of dispute between us, but I could swear I heard the waiter reply: "And I suppose you want some ******* chips as well."

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae