Drat the Boys/Max O’Rell unterrichtet französisch in England

Injured by friendly fire in the second siege of Paris, Max O’Rell found himself travelling to England and finished up teaching French to English schoolboys. His reminiscences are entitled ‘DRAT THE BOYS!’. Max O’Rell was the pseudonym of Léon Paul Blouet – see Wikipedia.

English boys have invented a special kind of English language for French translation.

It is not the English they use with their classical and other masters; it is not the English they use at home with their parents, or at school with their comrades: it is a special article kept for the sole benefit of their French masters.

The good genus boy will translate oui, mon père, by ‘yes, my father,’ as if it were possible for him to forget that he calls his papa father, and not my father, when he addresses him.

He very seldom reads over his translation to ascertain that it reads like English; but when he does, and is not particularly satisfied with the result, he lays the blame on the French original. After all, it is not his fault if there is no sense in the French, and he brings a certain number of English dictionary words placed one after the other, the whole entitled FRENCH.

Of course he could not call it ENGLISH, and he dared not call it NONSENSE.

He calls it FRENCH, and relieves his conscience.

I remember Latin unseens from school. Collins says for unseen unvorbereitete Herübersetzung. I seem to think we sometimes prepared them for homework. Was the translation into the foreign language called translation? At all events, writing natural English was never the point. This French schoolmaster sees things differently, though.

I once read the following sound advice given in the preface of a French Translation book:


‘1. Read the passage carefully through, at least twice.’

‘2. Keep as close as possible to the original in sense, but use English idiom boldly.’

‘3. Never write down nonsense.’

Now, and whilst I think of it, why unseen?

It may be that I do not perceive the niceties of the English language, but this commonly used word, ‘unseen,’ never conveyed any meaning to my mind. Would not ‘unforeseen’ be a better word? I would timidly suggest.

If the book in question succeeded in making boys carry out the foregoing suggestions, it would be worth its weight in gold.

As far as my experience goes, the only hint which I have known them follow is the one that tells them to use English idiom boldly.

A drawback to these hints is that they are given in the preface. Now, dear colleagues and confrères, which of you has ever known a schoolboy read the preface of his book?

And a few would-be translators could take advice from him on dictionaries.

Oh! the French dictionary, that treacherous friend of boys!

The lazy ones take the first word of the list, sometimes the figurative pronunciation given in the English-French part.

Result: ‘I have a key’ — ‘J’ai un ki.’

The shrewd ones take the last word, to make believe they went through the whole list.

Result: ‘A chest of drawers’ — ‘Une poitrine de caleçons.’

The careless ones do not take the right part of speech they want.

Result: ‘He felt’ — ‘Il feutra’; ‘He left’ — ‘Il gaucha.’

With my experience of certain French dictionaries published in England, I do not wonder that English boys often trust in Providence for the choice of words, although I cannot help thinking that as a rule they are most unlucky.

Very few boys have good dictionaries at hand. I know that Smith and Hamilton’s dictionary (in two volumes) costs twenty shillings. But what is twenty shillings to be helped all through one’s coaching? About the price of a good lawn-tennis racket.

I have seen boys show me, with a radiant air, a French dictionary they had bought for sixpence.

They thought they had made a bargain.

Oh, free trade! Oh, the cheapest market!

Sixpence for that dictionary! That was not very expensive, I own — but it was terribly dear.

Thanks to Alex at www.flefo.org.

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