Le langage des mangas

You know, in some ways French is more suitable for translating mangas than English. For one thing, they can maintain the English/native language distinction that shows up in a lot of mangas in a more reasonable way. (Attempts made in English versions, like spelling the "English" phonetically, or using French instead, don't seem to work so well - the latter, because English-language writers can't expect their readers to really know French (or any other language, for that matter sigh).

But perhaps more importantly, they can maintain formal/informal distinctions much more easily than in English. A good example is in the early volumes of Dragonball, when Bulma and (Son)goku are traveling around: When they run into somebody fierce, Bulma is very respectful, addressing them with "vous," while Goku "tu"s everybody no matter what. And it's not so unnatural to use M., Mlle., and last names even with people you know, so the Orange Road manga keeps all the Ayukawas and Kasugas unchanged.

But to appreciate the difference between the formal, respectful stuff you learn in school, and the informal, colloquial French that will show up in mangas, you've got to be able to understand the latter. So here are a few random notes to get you started. I'm hoping to evolve this into a reasonable reference guide, so any additional contributions are welcome!

Expressions familière

  1. Frequently, ne is dropped from two-part negatives, like ne...pas or ne...rien. Thus,
  2. T'as pas raison! = Tu n'as pas raison! (You're wrong!)
    J'en veux plus! = Je n'en veux plus! (I don't want any more!)

    Occasionally this can be confusing, since the second part of the negative wasn't originally negative at all. With personne, usually if it isn't modified by something like une, it's going to be negative:

    Personne a dit ça. (Nobody said that.)
    J'ai vu personne. (I didn't see anbody.)

    By contrast:

    J'ai vu une personne (I saw a person.)

    With something like jamais or plus, usually you can tell from the context whether they're positive or negative. (Jamais, in particular, is almost always negative.)

    J'ai jamais dit ça! (I never said that!)
    Combien de fois j't'ai dit de plus t'habiller de cette façon? (How many times have I told you not to dress like that any more?)

    Dropping ne from ne...que (only, not until) can be more of a problem, since one your first read-through, you're likely to try to make it be the relative pronoun que.

    @@ I saw an excellent example of this which unfortunately I can no longer find...

    For more meanderings on the negative in French, see my notes on the subject.

  3. Questions tend to be made simply by putting a question mark at the end of a declarative sentence, without rearrangement or prefacing with est-ce que:
  4. Il a dit quoi? = Qu'a-t-il dit? (He said what?)
    C'est quoi ton nom? = Quel est ton nom? (What's your name?)
    Ils nous suivent encore? (They're still following us?)

    Note that quoi takes the place of que in the middle or the end of a sentence.

  5. Contractions abound, well beyond what you've learned as "acceptable" ones. In particular, personal pronouns ending in a vowel can always be contracted. Thus,
  6. T'es sûr? = Tu es sûr? (You're sure?)

    In fact, you can contract them even when the next word doesn't start with a vowel, like

    J't'aime, ma p'tite! (I love you, my little one!)

    The same applies to other short words, like de, le, que and ce. The -re at the end of notre, votre and so on can also be contracted:

    C'est vot' voiture, ça? (That's your car, there?)

  7. The first three colloquialisms above are fairly common. In fact, often when someone is not following them, i.e. isn't doing "unusual" contractions, and forms negatives and questions in the "textbook" fashion, it's an indication the speaker is deliberately being formal. For example, when Aoi wants Senbei to drive her to the movies in volume 1 of Dr. Slump, she says:
  8. Monsieur, accepteriez-vous de m'accompagner en ville pour voir un film au cinéma? (Sir, would you be so kind as to escort me into town to see a film at the cinema?)

  9. The word mais is often used simply to provide a little emphasis to a sentence, or to temporize when the speaker isn't quite sure what to say. Often, it doesn't really require translation.
  10. Just like in English, words are very frequently truncated. One peculiarity of French abbreviated words is that much of the time, they seem to end in c or o:
  11. labo = laboratoire (laboratory)
    McDo = (that place with the golden arches that French farmers hate)
    resto or restau = restaurant (hopefully a step up from McDo's)
    frigo = réfrigérateur (refrigerator)
    hebdo = hebdomadaire (weekly)
    météo = météorologie (weather, weather report)

    fac = faculté (faculty, area of study)
    fric = fricot (literally, a stew or fricassee, but used as slang for money)
    d'ac or d'acc = d'accord (OK)
    traduc = traduction (translation)
    flic = from German Fliege (cop)

    But there are others, too, like prof, télé, soft (software), job. This last one is not the English word, but an abbreviation of jobard (one who's naive, easily duped). FYI, the English word job is also used in French, pronounced like English ("dzhab"), unlike this one, pronounced like French ("zhob"). Admittedly, it's a little hard to tell what the pronunciation is supposed to be when reading a manga.

  12. "Fonetik" spelling. Hmm, this is the exception to the previous statement. Occasionally, phonetic spelling is used, generally to indicate a person is speaking informally, slurring his or her words, or whatever:
  13. Chuis pas agitée!! = Je [ne] suis pas agitée!! (I am not all worked up!!)
    Keskila? = Qu'est-ce qu'il a? (What's with him?)
    Ch'ais pas c'qu'elle me veut! = Je [ne] sais pas ce qu'elle me veut! (I don't know what she wants with me!)

    A cute phoneticism is K7. No, this isn't an organization for dogs who didn't make the cut for the K9 corps, but it's a similar pun. Recall in French, this would be pronounced ka-sept, so it makes sense that Video Girl Ai would come out of one.

  14. The pronoun il is often omitted from impersonal constructions:
  15. Y a quoi en bas? = Il y a quoi en bas? (What's down below?)
    Faut aller vite. = Il faut aller vite. (You've got to go fast.)

  16. By contrast, "extra" pronouns often show up for emphasis:
  17. Cette femme, elle me plaît beaucoup (I like this girl a lot.)
    Tu vois, elles, elles aiment ça. (You see, those [girls], they like that.)

  18. "Foreigners" may speak a sort of pidgin French, where verbs are in the infinitive, and moi, toi and so on are used for all forms of the pronouns.
  19. Tous venir avec moi? (You all coming with me?)
    Vous pas comprendre ce que moi dire! (You no understand what me say!)

  20. Verlan is a "secret" slang language like Pig Latin. In Verlan, the syllables of a word are flipped around. (If a word only has one syllable, a second is made for it.)
  21. béton = tomber (fall)
    reupé = père (dad)

    You won't find anybody actually speaking Verlan in manga, but a few Verlan words have crept into common usage. Just like with Pig Latin (ixnay, amscray), these are generally made from words which themselves are slang. The tiny slang dictionary I have here lists a few Verlan words. By the way, the name Verlan itself is Verlan, for l'envers (backwards).

Other miscellanea

Grades in school. In the U.S., we count grades upward (i.e., the number of years completed); in France, they tend to count downward (i.e., the number of years left). Perhaps there's some deep cultural significance there.... Anyway, here is an approximate equivalence table:
Pre-K - K Maternelle (moyenne)Maternelle (grande)Ages 3 to 6
PreschoolKindergarten
1 - 5 CPCE1CE2CM1CM2(École primaire)Ages 6 to 11
1st2nd3rd4th5th(Elementary school)
6 - 9 Sixième (6e)Cinquième (5e)Quatrième (4e)Troisième (3e)(Collège)Ages 11 to 15
6th7th8th9th (Freshman)(Middle school/junior high)
10 - 12 SecondePremièreTerminale (Bac)(Lycée)Ages 15 to 18
10th (Sophomore)11th (Junior)12th (Senior)(High school)

As for those abbreviations:
CPcours préparatoire
CEcours élémentaire
CMcours moyen

One other small point on schooling - French schools generally start in the fall and end in the summer, just like American schools. (French schools do tend to finish rather later in the summer, though, since their intermediate breaks are longer.) Japanese schools, on the other hand, generally start in the early spring and finish in the winter.

This creates a problem for both American and French translators of Japanese texts: when a character says she is in, say, 7th grade, what corresponding grade should the translator put her in? Doing a miniscule amount of research, it looks like American translators are more likely to put her in 7th grade no matter what, while French ones may put her in 6th grade, if it seems like it's earlier in the year. (I'm leaving out the naughty ones where everybody ends up in junior college, of course.) I'm not going to state which way is "right" - there are arguments for each side - but thought I should point it out in case you notice the discrepancy.

For more information...

Online resources

I have my own small dictionary of miscellaneous expressions. Currently, it's mostly a merge of the next two lists. I'm gradually correcting and augmenting it with whatever I find of interest in the course of reading.

Colgate has a small dictionary of colloquialisms called Le Dico.

There's a small list of colloquialisms with the peculiar name French detective novel online.

There's an online Alternative French Dictionary , though it is heavily weighted toward obscenities of the kind you'll seldom find in manga translations. (In some of the raunchier B.D.s, yes, but not manga.)

Shin! A similar list is at The Uncensored French Language. In fact, this looks to me to be an updated version of the previous list.

www.argots.com was a fairly extensive dictionary of French argot. Unfortunately, the site seems to have vanished.

The best online general purpose French dictionary I have found is the Dictionnaire Universel Francophone En Ligne; however, this one is French language only. I don't have any preferred French-English online dictionaries; I suggest you check the current list at A Web of On-line Dictionaries and decide for yourself.

Online translation services

The various online translation services can be useful if you understand their limitations. In particular, they tend not to understand many colloquial expressions, and can get confused easily, especially by minor misspellings or grammar errors. Still, they can be a good first hack when you don't understand a sentence at first glance. They are especially convenient as a quick way to scan a French web page to see if it's worth further translation effort.

For a more complete listing of these, check out:

Dictionaries and other reference books

The Street French books by David Burke (published by Wiley) are a good reference. There are now four volumes in the series:

One warning, though: the dialogues in the books are completely over the top. The English translations given are a good guide - if you tried packing the slang in they way they do there, people would think you were nuts.

There's a textbook called L'art de la conversation by Yvonne Lenard which has sections every chapter on colloquial French. Unfortunately, it seems it is no longer in print.

A recent French dictionary is a must. Here, as far as I'm concerned, the only name worth considering is Larousse. (Oh, all right, the Oxford-Hachette French-English Dictionary is a good one, as is the Harper Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary. And if you have the bucks, you can always pick up a Petit Robert .)

If your French is pretty good, it's best to stick with a French-only dictionary, since its coverage will be better, and your reading will be smoother when you're not trying to switch back and forth between French and English. The Petit Larousse, which is anything but little, is a standard choice - it's more than a dictionary; it's really a cultural experience. However, even something like Larousse's Dictionnaire Général, which is directed at the secondary school crowd (collégiens et lycéens) seems good enough, and is easier to read (and cheaper, besides). Otherwise, just your average paperback French/English dictionary will handle most things, but they all tend to have a very limited coverage of colloquialisms.

Oh, and even though I was mostly giving links to amazon.com above, these things tend to be a lot cheaper (and newer) at a French bookstore - like, less than half the price. Check out alapage.com for the current editions:

Finally, if you're really stuck, feel free to send me (mahousu@gmail.com) your troublesome text. I don't have the time to translate whole volumes, but if there's a sentence or two that's giving you problems, I'm willing to give it a try. (I'll need a little context if it's from a manga I don't have.) If it's a good example, I'll work it into the guide here (crediting you as the source if you wish, of course).


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