May 23, 2011 | French

New York City, en Français

Reading about New York and its evolution, in French.

Over the past week I have been spending time reading about New York City from the point of view of French writers. 

It’s been going fabulously. Books are highly portable and can go anywhere.

I Took a French Book to Times Square...

I Took a French Book to Times Square…

...and Over Manhattan Bridge

…and Over Manhattan Bridge

First I read Catherine Cusset’s New York journal d’un cycle. As I mentioned previously, this book details, among other things, her adventures riding through New York City on her bike, sometimes accompanied by her husband on roller skates.

As a runner who constantly competes with roller-bladers and cyclists in Central Park—roller-bladers and cyclists who do not understand their proper lanes, though through no fault of their own, since the markings on the park drives are totally confusing—I found it amusing to see New York from the (French) point of view of a cyclist.

Cusset appreciates the therapeutic benefits of exercise and of simply being outdoors. She writes, “Je suis convaincue que c’est en prenant l’air chaque jour qu’on garde le contrôle de sa vie.” A rough translation: “I am convinced that it is in getting some air every day that one maintains control of one’s life.”

Cusset Traveled Around Town With Me This Week

Cusset Traveled Around Town With Me This Week

I can relate.

In addition, one of the things I like about reading real books rather than just grammar books is that you tend to get a broader range of vocabulary (though I do seriously love grammar books). For example, in Cusset’s narrative I came across the term gadgets érotiques. For good reason, I figured that was probably “sex toys.”

Since such a thing is presumably not in my dictionaries, I checked the term in Google Translate. Google Translate translated it as “erotic gadgets.” 

Skeptical, I then tried translating “sex toys” from English to French. Google Translate offered jouets sexuels

Now I am perplexed. And distrustful, because erotic terminology tends to be an area where your standard dictionaries and translators are not the best sources of information.

As I have mentioned previously, one of the reasons I have a hard time reading books in a foreign language is that I have a tendency to look up every single word I don’t know or am not sure about, until I lose track of what the writer is saying. Constant interruptions are not good for reading comprehension; it is better to rely a little more on context and to let certain murky words go.

Preventing me from looking up too many words is the fact that some weeks ago, a piece of gum, of a psychedelically blue color, fell onto my favorite dictionary. 

Reluctantly I will concede that the place that it fell from was in fact my mouth.

Normally I chew gum with my mouth closed, but I guess I suffered a lapse.

Anyway, I picked most of the gum off of and out of the dictionary, but the remainder is still making things sticky, and also it looks kind of gross. I don’t like it.

The gum affects the c’s, d’s, and e’s in particular, but it is also a general deterrent to dictionary use. Which is, in the end, better for me.

American History in French

American History in French

After reading Cusset’s bike book, I moved on to François Weil’s Histoire de New York. I am loving it. I read quite a few histories of New York City when I first moved here, but I have forgotten a lot of what I read.

It is amusing to read in French about things like the birth of Columbia University, Shearman & Sterling, Fraunces Tavern, and Macy’s.

A minor point that I find strange visually: French spacing around colons is different from English. They actually put a space not only after but also before their colons. It is a bit jarring to look at, but after all, punctuation is neither universal nor a science. Semicolons, quotation marks, and punctuation around quotation marks are also handled differently.

By the way, I stopped by Strand Bookstore Saturday night to check out their French section. There were quite a few French books, though the selection was a little obscure when I was there. I asked an employee where they get their books.

Strand Bookstore Was Hopping on Saturday Night

Strand Bookstore Was Hopping on Saturday Night

An Eclectic Selection, French and Other Languages

An Eclectic Selection, French and Other Languages

He said they stock new (meaning new to them) books all the time, buying them from people who bring in their libraries, but that customers snap up the good French stuff fast. He told me, for example, that a Senegalese man comes in twice a week and buys the best literature and political writing. 

So, if you want to shop French at Strand, you may get lucky, but you should be prepared for some New York-style competition. 

Comments (3)

Julie • Posted on Tue, May 24, 2011 - 9:37 pm EST

You chew gum? I am disappointed.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, May 24, 2011 - 10:10 pm EST

It’s pretty shocking, I know. I’m sorry to have let you down.

Julie • Posted on Thu, June 02, 2011 - 5:40 am EST

But can you speak French at the same time? Maybe the gum’s what’s holding you back.

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