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 tuée, using the past participle and agreeing with the preceding direct object, me, which is a woman in this case) 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 confused 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?
Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.