What I love most about French is the loose precision of its words. How a single word can refer to something so specific, yet conjure up so many other memories. To the English tongue, a French word can sound so vaguely familiar, as if you could have known it in a past life, but lost it somewhere down the line. In translation, you meet again.
In his letters from exile, Victor Hugo wrote, “In the French language, there is a great gulf between prose and poetry; in English, there is hardly any difference. It is a splendid privilege of the great literary languages Greek, Latin, and French that they possess a prose. English has not this privilege. There is no prose in English. ”
Oh mais oui ze great French privilège! I’m not sure how well-versed Hugo really was in English prose, but I do agree that the French language allows for the use old classical words without sounding contrived – an effect that makes reading a good book feel more special, more sacred.
Lately, I’ve been translating a book sample for a publisher in Paris and have been keeping track of literary words and expressions that strike me. Here are a few from my list:
1. embraser : to set ablaze, to ignite
2. psalmodier: to sing in monotone, to chant
3. avoir la langue pâteuse: to have a doughy tongue
4. les entrailles: abdominal organs, innards, guts
5. se faufiler: to slip into somewhere and to weave in and out
6. ignorer: to not know or be unaware of something (not necessarily to just ignore it)
7. concupiscence: a natural affinity for material or earthly goods, particularly sensual pleasures
8. tohu-bohu: disorder and confusion, comes from Hebrew for the formless state of the world before Creation.
9. épanouir: to open a flower by pulling its petals
10. effleurer: to just barely touch the surface of something