Season's misunderstandings

This week-end I had a lovely stay at a French friend in the Southern part of England. Our conversation inevitably slipped to the topic "language, mistranslation and other misunderstandings". This mate shared with us some of the awkward experiences he faced since he arrived in the UK, and one of them was quite funny so I decided to mention it in this blog.


First, let me share with you an observation that will help understand why my friend was fooled by his own language... Due to the medieval influence of William The Conqueror and his fellow Normans, Latin has infiltrated English. As a result, complex words in both French and English share the same roots, and often the same orthography. And the longer, the more complex a word is. We thus observed (and that has to be verified) that 7-and-above-letter word in French tends to have its equivalent on this side of the Channel. So sometimes, when you are short of a word, you can always try your luck and pronounce the French word with some kind of an English accent, and it might well do the trick. The reciprocal approach should work too. So next time you go to Paris and struggle, have a go... Just don't think too complex, after all not all the bar tenders have a PhD in Literature...

Now, if this trick does not work, you can also try literal translation. However, this is a last chance attempt, because with our flourished language, the translation rarely matches. You see me coming, this is exactly what happened to my friend!

International pub talks

As a keen water sport lover, he wanted to explain to a co-worker that he was looking for a place to kitesurf. The only trouble was that he could not remember how to say "kite" in English, which was quite critical in his situation as you can imagine. Kite in French is not seven letter long, damn it, option 1 was down, and after having tried his best Marcel Marceau's imitation, he decided to translate the French word literally.

Kite in French is "Cerf-Volant", literally "Flying-Deer"... You can certainly picture yourself, in a pub, with someone asserting that he wants to go surfing with a flying deer. Well, unless you are talking to a round-bellied guy dressed in red and with a long white beard, it is very unlikely that you can figure out what the guy is talking about. And neither did his colleague, until my friend finally recalled the proper word.
kite vs. flying deer
Translating your own language

Such an experience is not only funny, it is also enriching. It forces you to challenge your own language. Why on Earth are we calling a Kite a flying-deer in French? Was that because they were initially built with deer skins? Well, before the (mobile) Internet-era all this would have led to endless speculations, but with a 3G-enabled device, a few clicks on wikipedia and you have the answer on the go. And it was quite interesting an answer...

In France too, we have foreign language influences in our vocabulary. We even have influences from since-disappeared languages such as the Occitan Language, once spoken in the southern part of France. In this language, kites were called sèrp-volanta, referring to flying-snakes (which makes more sense visually, especially when you have the original Chinese models in mind). But the words sèrp (snake) and cerf (deer) with its silent "f" sound very similar, so a mistake was made when it was "translated" into common French.

This is how I have learned that the deers are not really flying except on December 24th. Merry Christmas dear reader, and happy new year dear reindeer.


Carpe Diem, bite the Apple

There are some speeches that are inspiring... This one by Apple's Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005 is definitely. Enjoy the dots, the passion and the death!


Londoniaz 1850m

The French literature features a novelist from whom I feel close to. Not that I have an ounce of his talent (although my French teacher often criticized my prose as "as circumvolutory" as his, and this was obviously no compliment), but because he came up with some concepts which are so true to me. And even proved so earlier today.

In Search of Lost Time.

Marcel Proust is a writer, born in the XIXth century in Paris, who focused his writing on memories and time (again nothing to compare to my article on the same topic though). A psychological attitude is even referenced after his name: the Proust effect or involuntary memory. The later has been materialised in a novel where the hero, walking by a patisserie, was brought back to his childhood memories by the mere smell of a freshly-backed madeleine. We commonly name this phenomenon "Madeleine de Proust" (Proust's Madeleine): the activation of deep-buried feelings or memories by an exogenous event.

As mentioned above, this happened to me this afternoon again. No I have not eaten a madeleine (I am trying to put off weight before the Christmas season really kicks off). But making my way through to the nearest tube station, I came across a street where a short-lasting forest of Christmas trees has arisen. A few seconds at the corner of this street, and I was gone. Back there. In my mountains...

A breeze of fresh air.

For me the smell of the evergreens, of their sap... brings me immediately back to my mountains where as a child I was wandering in the snowed forest, looking for our victim. The tree that will throne in the middle of our chalet with its lot of balls and decorations. But don't get me wrong, I am neither nostalgic, nor home-sick. After all, there are so many things happening in London that evoke my home, that I feel at home here. Food, skiing, deers, now the evergreens... As soon as I will find some Chartreuse in pubs and stop sipping my own reserve, then I think we will be there: London will be on the French map of Alps! Because as they say in the latest (pseudo-trendy, though crappy) advert for the Tourism Board of the French Alps... "J'adore la montagne" (I luv' da mountains):


Yogurt singing (part 2)

I already wrote an article about "yogurt singing", a practice that consists in singing approximate lyrics on a foreign song or in using onomatopoeias to reproduce sounds that come to our non-educated hear. An example? Let's say that the original lyrics is "wanna gain freedom", a nice politically-engaged line, now in yogurt that could become "one again three four" (don't get it? read it fast, with a strong French accent, and you will end up getting it).

A spoonful of notes.

The singer tries to foul his audience, or even himself, that he can sing. That helped a lot of wannabes in the sixties, but now, with English taught in French primary schools, it becomes more and more difficult to make a living with yogurt's (unless it is organic, sugar- and fat-free, but this is a digression). In other words, the only yogurt users are nowadays individuals in their bathroom with only a plastic duck as an audience.

Ken touched this.

But the insight remains intrinsically true. When you don't master a language, you tend to refer to the few words that you know and think you recognise them. It is not a matter of understanding what you speak, it is a matter of reinsuring yourself that you are capable of something... Berlitz has just released a new ad on the web using a very nice graphic design execution, but before all relaying on this market truth. Strategically right, well executed and supported by the cult MC Hammer, Man... I lov'that!

Edit: the MC Hammer ad has been deleted, but the same idea has been developed on the La Bamba soundtrack. arriba!


From scapegoat to superhero

Recently, as I have been looking for my next job after year and a half in web agencies, I was regularly asked what would be the greatest achievement of the Internet. This question has been haunting me for a while, and I recent night out with fellow bloggers, Sandrine and Raphael, has provided me with the first elements of an answer.

A revolution, but which revolution?

I don't think that the greatest revolution of the worldwide web are social networks and their ability to empower common people with a powerful communication tool. I am convinced that it is not either the possibility to visualise information or emotions through new taxonomies like tag clouds, or the magnificent work by Jonathan Harris like wefeelfine or universe.

No, I think that the major achievement of the Internet is more behavioural than technological or social. Internet indeed allowed to transform nerds into inspiring people! For years they have been ridiculed, they were thrown stones at... And suddenly their vision of the world was valued millions, and their sex appeal (or at least social appeal) followed the ascending curve of their bank account value.

Call me Sir Geek

Today, being a geek is no longer an insult, it is even somehow hype and inspiring. Belonging to the RSS feed subscribers who read their latest blog posts on their 3G+ devices whilst watching streamed content on their sopcast players signifies almost being part of a cast of superheroes with super social powers... They are on the front cover of glossy magazines, interviewed on TV and newspapers. Or am I just making this up just to reinsure myself that I am no outcast.

But then, if we listen to this anticipation video, the geeks could even one day become semi-gods... That kind of interest me, if my current job hunt was not successful:


Sublim subliminal

The first time I heard of subliminal images was probably in the 80s after I watched a Columbo episode where some film editor killed a rival by influencing through hidden images in a film. Since then, I have paid a lot of attention to this technique which is, as you would agree, quite puzzling.

Thanks lieutenant!

What is a subliminal image? This is an image you don't consciously perceive but which will be processed by your brain. For instance, the classical cinema camera used to shoot at a speed of 24 image per second. In fact, you don't really need these 24 images to give back the smooth movement of reality: your eyes capture them all and your brain process them all to give you the feeling of a continuity whilst it is in fact the apposition of 24 still images. So now, if you substitute one of the images of this desert scenery by one single image of chilled glass of a fizzy refreshing drink, then expert says that your brain is tempted to unconsciously produce a stimulus of thirst and a predisposition to go for a lemonade... And that is how the bad guy manage to kill his victim in that Columbo episode.

Politics, sex...

Obviously such influential practices are not hard facts. They are hard to prove as they are highly dependant on the context in which they are used. But still, subliminal images have marked the last decades with some major examples. Like porn in children cartoons! You might remember the 35th Disney cartoon "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and its sexy character Jessica Rabbit. Well to increase her appeal, some animators decided to add some subliminal image of Jessica naked in the motion picture. This true legend was then a major factor of sales when the film went out on since-disappeared Laser Discs because it was at that time the only public technology allowing you to truly visualise a film frame by frame.

Another example of subliminal images made a politico-media scandal after 1988 presidential elections in France. Francois Mitterrand was elected for the second time in a row, and some experts identified some puzzling images on the state-owned channel Antenne 2 (now named France 2). The introduction of the news programme was an animated three-dimensional "a2" rotating in the air until the speaker was on screen. A careful look at this 3D animation revealed that there was a face which could well be Mitterrand's was blended in the metallic texture of the figure.
When you know that a) the regulation forbids subliminal images, b) candidates are due to an equal speech time and c) Mitterrand was said to have a harsh hand on media, especially on national TV, you can easily conclude, as many did, that this image was not here by chance. So unfair practice from an influential political leader and president or not, we will never know the truth. On the other hand, during the 2000 American election campaigns, the intentions were clearer. During a TV spot for George W. Bush, the future president was presenting his opponent's programme under his own light. And to increase the negative perception of Al Gore, some subliminal messages were displayed alongside, like this one, briefly but clearly insulting the Democ....rats!
Look me in the eyes.

The influence of these images has not been scientifically proven though. The French ophthalmologic website Ophtasurf reports that:
A Canadian TV network has run an experimentation displaying 300 times a subliminal call-to-action during a popular show. The message was encouraging viewers to "Call now" but no significant upraise in calls was noticed. Psychologist Ahmed Channouf from University of Provence in France explained that too complex messages have no chance to be understood properly by a brain in milliseconds, and would consequently have no impact on behaviours.

Several scientists confirm that there is no possibility that such a brief visual stimulation would influence consumers to buy a product against their will. Eventually it could increase a propensity to act, but not alter the predispositions.

Or couldn't it? Well, this post was prompted by a visual stimulus... I have seen on the Internet an excerpt from E4 programme presented by illusionist Derren Brown. This is obviously not a scientific demonstration, but interesting and puzzling enough, don't you think?
Des publicitaires piégés via Koreus

Funny enough, when I saw this film for the first time, I spotted the harp, and this made me think of Guinness. Isn't that another proof of the influence of symbols? Not sure, but why not have a beer...