Honing your language skills: Learning through translation

The majority of people nowadays speak a second language. After all, it is quite a useful talent in our globalised world where you are more and more likely to meet speakers of a foreign language. You may be required to become bilingual either because of your job or because you are moving to another country. Or you might choose to learn a language to broaden your horizons: maybe you want to read a famous book in the language it was originally written. Or, on your next trip to the Black Forest, you want to order your “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte” in German without getting a bemused look in reply. Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, if you want to improve your language skills, you will have to get a lot of language practice done. If you are looking for an alternative to the usual methods of language practice, you might want to try translation. Why? The magic word is “research”.

The translation task – should you choose to accept it – requires you to know your vocab and helps you achieve this aim. When translating a text, translators (and all you language learners out there) have one very important aim: to understand what the author is trying to say. But it is not enough to merely understand the gist of a sentence. Before you can get to work, you have to make sure that you understand the meaning of every word in the text – both the dictionary definition and the contextual meaning.

When you are faced with unknown words, contexts and subject matters, you’ll need to put on your researcher’s hat and do some digging. You’d be surprised where that research can lead you. I’ll give you an example:

I once had to translate a short French text about cheese. Somewhere towards the end, the author declared in a seemingly jokey way that there are more than 246 varieties of cheese in France after all. This didn’t make any sense to me at all. Did somebody claim that this was the case? And even if they had, why was this reference funny? After some lengthy research into the subject of French cheese, French national identity, the history of France (Général de Gaulle and the 1960s) and the writing style of this particular author, I finally found the answer! It was a reference to a famous quote by the former president of France. He had asked in 1962 how one could possibly govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. Apparently, this was his way of saying that there are lots of different people living in France and that, as a politician, it’s really difficult to make everyone happy. So when the author used de Gaulle’s cheese metaphor to talk about actual cheese, it was a French “insider joke” that readers would only be able to understand if they are familiar with French culture and history.

The original quote, including context and explanation, was easy enough to find, but the extra bit of reading I did around the topic gave me some additional insight into French culture and history – all of which also strengthened my French language skills.

Translation, and the research it entails, compels and helps you to go the extra mile in order to understand what the source text is saying. Your translation needs to accurately reflect the original text – you can’t skip words just because you don’t understand them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it can actually be very rewarding: if you don’t understand a word, you can’t go on with your translation, so you have to keep digging for those important nuggets of information. You read your way around and into a subject until you become somewhat of an expert on the matter.

Translating texts, researching information and reading articles in a foreign language is so much more fun than learning long vocab lists by heart or working your way through dry grammar exercises – it’s a fun way to discover new words, improve your language skills and learn about new things (even if it’s just about cheese). And with all this concerted effort for just one text, you’d be hard pressed to forget the words you researched! So why not give it a go?

french idioms about butter

Utterly butterly: My favourite 5 French idioms all about butter

The main rule of French cuisine is that everything tastes better when smothered in butter, absolutely everything! Do you know why the French (and myself included of course), actually eat escargots? This chewy piece of rubber merely serves as an excuse to fancily sip on tiny cups full of buttery extravagance. So, if butter can actually turn slimy snails into a delicacy, I think it’s high time we paid tribute to this godsend of food… with language! Here’s a list of my favourite butter-related French idioms:

Compter pour du beurre – “To count for butter”

This French idiom stems from the outdated expression “de beurre” (made of butter), used to describe something worthless. Butter? Worthless? How dare you?!

Historically speaking, the French upper class only went crazy for butter during the 19th century: before that, this product was extremely cheap and only consumed by the lower classes. Therefore, if something “counts as butter”, it is worthless. This expression has childish ring to it, so please refrain from using it for your business meetings.

It is actually a 2-in-1 expression that can also be used interrogatively to voice your frustration from being left out of conversation: “Et moi, je compte pour du beurre?! literally this means “What about me?! Do I count as butter?”, which is similar to “What am I? Chopped liver?” in English.

Et ta sœur, elle bat le beurre ? – “And your sister, is she churning butter?

Have you ever been annoyed at someone’s nosy questions? Well, this is the perfect comeback in French. The core idea is that it is quite rude of someone to ask about a close relative, like a sister. In other words, if you knew a thing or two about politeness, you would not ask such a question.

This expression is the result of a two-step process: albeit it first appeared at the end of the 19th century, it only consisted of “Et ta soeur?”, which could be roughly translated as “It appears to me that you are crossing the line, my good man.” For improved effect, “elle bat le beurre” was later added as a rhyming device that rolls off the tongue quite nicely, turning this saying into pure gold. There was absolutely no need to do so, but we just can’t help it: butter improves everything.

Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre – “He didn’t invent the butter slicer.”

Behold the best invention of all time:

French butter slicer

French butter slicer

What is a “fil à couper le beurre”, you might ask. I was actually shocked to hear that this nifty device was not a thing outside of French borders. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a very simple device used to slice blocks of butter.

You can figure out from the picture that it didn’t take much effort to come up with a metal wire wrapped around two wooden sticks. So, if you assume that someone is not even able to come up with such a simple piece of engineering, you are implying that he’s not “the brightest crayon in the box”.

So why not build your own “fil à couper le beurre” to impress at your next dinner party?

Beurré comme un p’tit LU – “To be full of butter like a little LU”

A “petit beurre” (small butter) or “ptit LU” is a famous French biscuit created at the end of the 19th century by Lefèvre-Utile, a leading manufacturer usually referred to as “LU”. Owing to its distinctive taste and shape, this product has since become an evergreen that is still to this day every French kid’s favourite snack.

A "petit beurre" - a butter biscuit

A “petit beurre” – a butter biscuit

This does not really explain why, after a long night at the pub, one of your friends might say that you are “full of butter like a biscuit”. No, even French butter has its limit: it does not make you tipsy… unfortunately. But the word “beurré” (full of butter) sounds very similar to the word “bourré” (full of alcohol), especially if you try to pronounce it after a few pints.

Have you ever noticed that a drunken person shares certain similarities with a big chunk of butter? Well the French have! This French idiom suggests that both are somewhat greasy and have a tendency to be soft or “mou”, which in French is a synonym for slow.

Mettre du beurre dans ses épinards – “To put butter in one’s spinach”

Ever since the French upper class realised the full potential of butter, it has become a symbol of wealth, and there’s no denying that it is extremely ‘rich’! Putting butter in one’s spinach refers to a source of extra income helping to make ends meet. In other words, having butter (or money) improves your spinach (or living conditions). See, everything tastes better when smothered in butter, even life itself!

For more food for thought, check out our blog post German idioms: It’s all about the sausage.