When Wrong is Right

She was Estonian, he was French and I was driving up a clutch-judderingly steep hill in south -west France listening to France Musique on the car radio. In summer, France proliferates with music festivals and they become the staple diet of the national music station. I found myself listening to a live interview being conducted in front of a concert audience.

A Language Barrier

The French presenter was interviewing a young Estonian musician about the unusual string instrument she would be playing in the concert we were about to hear. Her English was less than perfect, her French, presumably like his Estonian was non-existent, but his English to French and French to English was impeccable. (You wouldn’t encounter talent like that on British radio.)

And so communality of discourse was found in English.

A Solution

He put his questions to her in English and so that she could easily understand him, he purposely used a simplified mode of English. He also provided an instant translation of his question in French to the live and radio audience. Most of her responses in English contained constructions that a native English speaker wouldn’t use, but he translated what she meant to say into perfect French for the local audience who would assume that she had excellent English. But it was only an English speaker with some French, like myself, who would have noticed the thoughtful and kind way he conducted the interview.

It went a bit like this –


“Tell me about this most unusual instrument. Dites-moi de cet instrument plus insolite”.


“It is someone only found in Estonia”.


“C’est quelque chose ne se trouve en Estonie. Tell me how you came to have it. Dites-moi comment vous êtes venu à posséder ce”.


“It was provided by my grandmother at my 10th birthday”.


“Ma grand-mère me l’a donné comme un cadeau sur mon 10ème anniversaire”.

And so on.

Kindness pays off

His translation skills coupled with his people skills enabled a wholly integrated and understandable live conversation about the strange musical instrument to take place. Most translation works on the maxim of not changing what the speaker or writer says – verisimilitude – but in this case with an obviously inexperienced speaker of English and in front of a live audience and hundreds of thousands listening at home and with someone who needed to have complete confidence before going on to perform, it was obviously the right thing to do.

I’ve witnessed this process before, notably on French TV during the London Olympics where it seemed that victorious sportspeople from all over the world all had some competency in English which had to be translated by a live French commentator for the domestic audience, underlining the role of English, not French as the global second language. Always something hard to swallow for the French.