Knowledge of French popular culture: m’a tuer

An example of French popular culture: the phrase m’a tuer

I figured even Voici wouldn’t have made such a glaring grammatical mistake on their cover (it “should” be Twitter m’a tueé, using the past participle and agreeing with the preceding direct object) so I asked David what it referred to. He told me about the Omar Raddad case and the murder of Ghislaine Marchal. Omar, a Moroccan, worked as a gardener at her villa in Mougins (not far from Cannes) and was accused of her murder in 1991 because “Omar m’a tuer” was written on the wall in her blood next to the body. Though it was never proven to be Marchal’s handwriting, it was the only piece of evidence against Omar and he did go to jail for nearly seven years before being released as a favor to King Hassan II. Technically he is still considered guilty by law, even though many people have refuted the “evidence” and still believe it was merely racism that lead to his arrest.

It was a heavily mediatized scandal in France, and a movie about it will be released this year. [Update: Watch the trailer here!] I suppose “m’a tuer” could be compared to “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” from the OJ Simpson trial in the US. Anyone who watched French news in the 90’s knows about the Omar trial and instantly recognizes the phrase just as Americans recognize the phrase about the glove. Searching online, you’ll come across many examples of m’a tuer such as Google m’a tuer and Sarkozy m’a tuer. There was even a concert protesting the controversial “creation and internet” law called Hadopi that was adopted in 2009:

I’ve written a lot on learning culture with language because they cannot be separated, but popular culture is probably the hardest aspect of culture to learn. Unless you lived through it, saw it on TV, heard about it on a daily basis, it can be hard to really understand the importance (or non-importance) of it all. It is hard to learn about pop culture from books or even magazines because they don’t really explain it; they just expect you to know it. It’s the experience that matters most, and I’m not sure of the best way to recreate that when learning a language/culture.

David speaks English really well and has no trouble communicating or understanding with Americans. He still watches American series to get more exposure to the language (especially southern accents which he loves, so thanks True Blood) but he still finds it hard to understand pop culture references. I remember when he was watching Lost a few years ago and was completely lost during the Tricia Tanaka is Dead episode. Sawyer and Hurley were on pop culture overload with Skeletor, Hooked on Phonics, Rocky III, JumboTron, Jiminy Cricket, and Munchkin. It was a funny episode for Americans, but not so much for foreigners. Even if he had turned on the English subtitles, he still wouldn’t have understood because it was the meaning behind the words and not the actual words themselves that he didn’t understand. Comparing the French and English subtitles, it’s easy to see that some things can’t be translated well because they don’t really exist in France or French:

Somebody’s hooked on phonics. becomes T’as appris la phonétique.

What’s your problem, JumboTron? becomes C’est quoi, ton problème, Écran géant ? in one version and C’est quoi, ton problème, Jabba le Hutt ? in another.

Remember online subtitles are made by volunteers and aren’t necessarily the same as the dubbed version shown in France. But it is interesting to see how the translators decided to render the same idea or image in French, especially for things that don’t exist, such as the brand name JumboTron for the large TV screens in arenas and stadiums. One translator resorts to a literal translation of giant screen, while the other uses another cultural reference that French people would know since Star Wars is just as famous here as in the US.

Anyone else endlessly fascinated by translations of pop culture among languages?

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  • Anna

    This was awesome – I never heard about that case. I was surprised to realize that one of my French friends had never heard of the OJ case. Seeing it was practically the only thing on the news for about a year I had assumed something would have trickled over.

    I was watching Psych dubbed in French and there’s one episode (the Civil War one) where they say “There’s a Lieutenant Crunch here to see you.” “Actually I’ve been promoted – it’s Captain Crunch.” I was wondering how they were going to translate that. I didn’t really catch what they said but after doing some searching it sounds like it’s “Capitaine Caverne” (or Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels). I also watched Airplane dubbed into French and there were quite a few jokes they couldn’t translate (mostly the play on words ones – like “Don’t call me Shirley”).

    Another related thing are famous catch phrases and lines from film and TV (or répliques cultes). Watching American TV dubbed in French made me realize how much TV and film (but TV especially) make references to other things even citing quotes or using them to make puns.

  • Cynthia

    I never knew about that! I much more closer to the American culture than the French’s even as a native French speaker! I guess that’s what watching TV in English since I was born did to me ;)

  • Zhu

    It’s funny that French argued so much about grammar in that specific case, come to think of it!

    The OJ case is NOT famous in France. I had never heard of it before I came to Canada!

  • Jennie Wagner

    Puns are probably the hardest to translate. You have to find something that fits the situation but uses completely different words in the target language. It can be really difficult. I definitely feel for translators!

  • Oneika the Traveller

    Does that mean that the word “Twitter” in French is feminine?

  • Jennie Wagner

    No, the past participle agrees with the direct object pronoun, me, which refers to a woman in this case.

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  • Tess

    Anyway, it should have been “Twitter m’a tuée” not “tueé”.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.


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