Review of False Friends


False Friends/Faux Amis – Book Two

Elie Malet Spadbery

ISBN 978 1848766 020

I must assume that this is in fact Book One despite the heading on the cover. I received a PDF version of a book that would be much more user-friendly as a real book.

I had a lot of fun reading these lists of words which can cause difficulty for English-native speakers of French. But then, I am reasonably expert in French and am always looking for ways to improve my knowledge of French.

False Friends is simply a book of useful vocabulary lists. I list here the list of its lists – the Table of Contents:  1: False Friends 2: French Expression 3: Twins, Triplets, Etc. 4: Lists 5: Miscellaneous 6: English Expressions.

The false friends are words that look in French like an English word but are in fact different. For example, the verb prétendre means “ to claim”, unlike the English to pretend. The French words for the English ‘false friend’ are also given: the English pretend in French is feindre, or simuler or faire semblant.

Lists like this are always useful, and difficult to claim completeness. I was surprised not to find listed la déception> disappointment – deceive >tromper.

The lay-out of these lists is clean and clear. Lists relating to different areas of life, from birds to cars to football to insects are also useful.

There is a knack to getting good equivalents for French idioms. The translator must often change the underlying metaphor and find an idiom in English with a different metaphor. Elie Malet Spadbery achieves this task well most of the time. She translates “Ça c,est le bouquet” as “ that takes the biscuit”; a different metaphor but a serviceable equivalent.

Much of the humour of False Friends is the way these underlying metaphors are revealed in the process of translation. It is fun to learn that the French think excessive price is not costing “an arm and a leg” but rather, “the eyes of your head”! Rather than “laughing like a drain”, the French prefer to “laugh like a whale”!

It may have been helpful to give literal translations of some of the more obscure expressions.

For other list words, the translations are not so successful. Ms Spadbery translates “Un match de barrage” as  –“a relegation match”. This is a completely different register. You would use “de barrage” is much more ordinary circumstances than the rare and ‘elevated’ “relegation”. In addition this highly unusual English word is not necessary – “play-off” would be the usual translation.

The amusing portmanteau word “un pisse-vinaigre”, literally “someone who pisses vinegar” is also in a quite different register than the translations suggested: ”a wet blanket” or “a skinflint”.

A little guidance as to how to use the little word “le garcon”  ­to address a waiter would help. I gather it is less politically correct than in the past. People now more often call the waiter ‘Monsieur’. Garçon is going the way of “boy” in the US South, garçon being classist, while “boy” is racist as well.

Similarly with the entry,

“Une coupe>a dish, a bowl, a cup – a cup – une tasse“.

The distinction being made is valid, but English-speakers might first encounter this word as a trophy, “La Coupe d’Europe Renault 5 Alpine”, for example, where the natural translation is not dish, but “Cup”.

The word “Luvvies”, even with an explanation mark, is a rather alien word for “theatrical types”. “Luvvies” belong to a particular place and time.

What fun the English and French have with each other’s misdemeanours. “To take French leave” is of course for the French ”filer à l’anglaise”  (English running away)!

I had to look several times at the entry for La miséricorde – misericord in English (and I think miséricorde in French) refers to the bench under a choir stall. This is quite a common meaning, and without reference to that meaning, I found myself struggling a bit with when it takes on the meaning of “pitiful” (English) and when in French “pity”.

I wondered whether the title really fits the book. There are other books called ‘False Friends” or “Faux Amis” which stick closely to words of the “Faux Amis” type. A title for this book reflecting its wider inclusions might be better.

But these are picky complaints in an overall accurate and helpful book.

Who is it for? I would not recommend it to the beginning students in my adult French class, even though we are still reminded not to confuse dessous and dessus. For enjoyment and profit, I think the readers are those whose French is reasonably fluent and are looking to add to their stock of French vocabulary, with a small smile (that’s sourire, not souris) on the way.

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