Saturday, August 16, 2008

The People Called Roman They Go In The 'Ouse?

Imagine, if you will, that you are a branding executive at Gilchrist & Soames, a purveyor of luxury toiletries whose name, if its website is to be believed, is echoed throughout the world's most luxurious hotels.

Time was when the world's most luxurious hotels used to provide delicate little bottles of your wares in artfully arranged baskets in their marble-clad bathrooms, but then came 9/11, and people weren't travelling so much, so the world's most luxurious hotels had to scrimp and save a bit to make ends meet.

And inevitably, rather than continue to provide guests with expensive, nickable bottles of your luxury hair products, they took to bolting one great big refillable bottle of the stuff on to the marble-clad bathroom wall, whence only the most determined, screwdriver-wielding traveller could detach it.

But at the same time, the world's most luxurious hotels needed to maintain at least a veneer of luxuriousness, otherwise there would be little to distinguish them from the average Travelodge. So they asked your employer, Gilchrist & Soames, to make sure its bottles of shower gel still looked classy, even if in reality they were just plastic bottles of gunk bolted to a wall.

Of course, everyone knows that the way to make stuff look classy is to label it in French, the language of Parisian chic and sophistication. And so it falls to you, lowly branding executive, to create a label for the bolt-on bottle of shower goo that not only evokes the kind of traditional English country-house grandeur suggested by the name 'Gilchrist & Soames', but which also lends the product an air of continental elegance and cosmopolitan élan. In other words, the label has to be in English and French.

All very well, of course, but you don't speak any French, do you, otherwise you'd have a job at Clarins or Chanel, or some other classy Parisian cosmetics company. So when it comes to translating the admittedly rather brutal, anglo-saxon 'Hair and Body Wash' into French, you're at a bit of a loss.

Now, as I see it, at this point you could take one of three courses of action:

1. Ask someone you know who speaks French, or, better still, who *is* French, to translate it for you.

2. In your lunchbreak, nip down to a genuine French cosmetics retailer, say for example L'Occitane, to see what they're calling it. Better still, look it up on their website.

3. Run it through Babelfish. (Not something I'd usually advise, but in this particular case, its suggestion, while still bad, is infinitely better than what you eventually come up with.)

But no. You did something else. And to be honest, I can't really fathom what it was you did, or how you managed to get it so spectacularly wrong.

Fig 1. Spot the wrongness.

I would surmise that you started out by making the classic schoolboy error of translating word for word. Hair. And. Body. Wash. Maybe you looked up each word in turn in an English-to-French dictionary. Maybe. In any case, using this method, you managed to translate the first two words OK, even though in the overall context of the thing, they ended up being meaningless.

But then you got to 'Body'. I can only assume that upon discovering that the French for 'body' is 'corps', your delicate sensibilities rebelled and refused to let you allow a word that looks like 'corpse' to appear on a label that is supposed to radiate elegance, refinement and good grooming. Whatever happened, the result is that you elected to remove the final 's', leaving 'corp', a word that doesn't exist in French.

Finally, no doubt gathering your confidence and enthusiasm as you entered the home straight, you embarked on the word 'Wash'. Problematic, this, as 'wash' is more traditionally used as a verb than a noun, particularly in French. But you don't want a verb here, you want a noun that describes the product inside the bottle. In your place, I might have steered clear of the tricksy 'wash' altogether, and maybe gone with 'gel', like they have at L'Occitane.

But no, you're determined to translate word for word, so 'wash' it is. And somehow you end up not with the infinitive 'laver' ('to wash'), but with 'lave', which is either the first person present indicative ('I wash'), or the third person present indicative ('he/she/it washes'), or - and I think this is most likely, given the absence of a pronoun - the second person singular imperative ('wash!').

In essence, then, what you've done is create a label that, while exhibiting flawless English, once translated into French reads 'Hair and Corp, Wash!'

Which is one way of creating a truly memorable hair, bath and body product, but possibly not one that reinforces Gilchrist & Soames's claim to have a passionate and dedicated team of employees whose core focus is to constantly reach for further perfection in everything we do for our customers.



GreatSheElephant said...

That is rather splendid.

I detest the trend of bolting stuff to the wall. The Scotsman does it and I feel it somewhat detracts from its five starness. Frankly if I'm paying five star prices, I want something nickable.

Tim Footman said...

There are entire websites devoted to the amusing foul-ups that funny foreigners make when attempting to deal with the English language.* Perhaps we need an equivalent taking the piss out of monoglot Anglos?

*On the subject of which, only yesterday I discovered that Bangkok is blessed with a bakery called Deli Belly. Q: How do we attract the sophisticated farang to partake of our croissants? A: Name ourselves after a colonial euphemism for diarrhoea.

Anonymous said...

At least (s)he used cheveux and not cheval, which I seem to remember was a common school-child error.

Albert said...

Please please please send this to the head of marketing at Crabbe and Faucet, or whatever they be called, and then publish the reply.

jill said...

I'll bet the dictionary-wielding eedjit probably looked at "corps" and thought, "No - I want 'body,' not 'bodies.'"

Because everyone knows that when you strip the s off of something, it becomes singular.

As to "lave," it's not a second-person imperative (which would be "laves" if you are familiar with the body in question or "lavez" if the relationship is a bit more formal). So that leaves a strange sort of existential question about who exactly needs to use this product. Is it "I" who washes, or maybe "He/she" is in need of a scrub up? Finally, there is the grandly nonspecific "One" who may be getting a bit ripe. Concerns about unwashed masses start to intrude.

At any rate, I agree with your final conclusion.

jill said...

I should probably say, "wouldn't it?" As I now remember (after a few sips of coffee) that you have lived in France. I'll take my too-clever-for-my-own-good self off now....

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

It works - or fails to - both ways, of course. Some time ago a Montpellier garage gave us this effusion to check before sending it to a Brit client:

*Mister, April 5 last your vehicle registered *** is for us deposited by an engineer. This last specify that it is not having any number telephone and not any address you concerning but that you must contact the day for very us. Out to this day do not have us always had again of your part... Also we confirm as your vehicle for you is immobilized in our workshops with a noise motor and the collapse torn. Thank-you of to well want to do us to know your the quickly possible intention. In the waiting of a response receive, Mister, the expression of our feelings distinguished.

lave. There's the present subjunctive to consider, but also the possible use of 'lave' as an English word in its own right, although slightly archaic. Very sophisticated.

*Could all this passage be used as brand name?

patroclus said...

GSE: First the bathrobes went, then the slippers, now there aren't even any posh toiletries to nick. Unless you stay at one of the Paradores in Spain, that is, from where someone who will remain nameless and who certainly doesn't appear anywhere in this comments thread, hem hem sources all of his aftershave.

Tim: I think it's about time. On to the Naughty List goes Simon Thing at the Independent, with his insistence on pluralising 'fiasco' as 'fiasci', and anyone who's ever used 'panini' as a singular noun.

Anon: Oh yes, the old cheveux/chevaux confusion, often complicated by the notion of a cheval mirror, presumably for admiring one's chestnut (fore)locks.

Albert: Crabbe and Faucet is the best name ever - it might even be worth writing a sitcom set in a firm of that name, just to use the name.

Jill: Hello, and welcome! You sent me rushing in a panic to the book of French verb tables, hoping there wasn't going to be a repeat of the last time I got on my high horse about this kind of thing, only to be told that I was wildly and shamefully wrong about what TARDIS stands for. But as far as I can see, 'lave' is indeed the imperative form. What it's doing on this label, though, is still a complete mystery.

Dad: 'Out to this day do not have us always had again of your part' has a fantastically bawdy Shakespearean ring to it. Also I have a terrible feeling that an email I sent in Italian to some Italian clients the other day was no less idiosyncratic. But I think it's forgivable in private correspondence, but when it's on a label or shop sign I do think people ought to make an effort to check it makes sense. I hadn't considered 'lave' as an English word, although now I think it's one that should definitely be used more often.

Valerie said...

Well, they did say reach for perfection — not achieve it.

I have mixed feelings about the bolted stuff. On the one hand, I like nicking shampoo. On the other hand, I hate wasting plastic, given peak oil. One place I went to recently used corn "plastic", which was fine, except it was so thick you couldn't squeeze the bottles and get the shampoo out...

Anonymous said...

My knowledge of French and luxury hotels is somewhat limited.

I did once clean a 3-star in Clifton (or was it 4) and they just had the same shower gel stuff the cheaper hotels have.

patroclus said...

Valerie: I wouldn't say that this effort smacks of 'reaching for perfection' so much as 'rummaging under the bed for the remains of last night's pizza'. And you're right about the plastic, of course, but it would be nice if hotels could provide *something* you can nick, even if it's just a fancy soap. Especially if it's the sort of hotel that tries to charge you £15 for 24 hours' wi-fi access.

Billy: It was one of the perks of my old job that I got to stay in some monstrously fancy hotels while on business trips. I remember one hotel room that had its own mezzanine floor and was considerably bigger than my flat. Sadly I never really got to enjoy the facilities as I was always having to get up at 4am to bail out Swedish journalists who'd been arrested for swimming in the Trevi Fountain, and that kind of thing.

GreatSheElephant said...

I felt obliged to rush off to check how the French second person single imperative is formed, being an annoying detail freak like that and am happy to report for the home team, as laver is an er verb rather than an ir or re verb.

Anyhow, P, I have never felt moved to nick bathrobes, just in case it really is the case that the chambermaid is forced to pay for them out of her wages. The slippers are always too big for me so again not of interest. But I do like my purloined bottles of smellies. The first really grand hotel I ever spent a night in had Nina Ricci l'air du temps soaps in their own little dish and I have never been quite the same since. The last really grand hotel I stayed in had free (I assume) bottles of Agua de Loewe. Free perfume!

patroclus said...

GSE: Oh yes, the Nina Ricci soaps! I had one from some well posh hotel somewhere in the Alps (the nature of business trips being that you spend so little time there you don't actually remember afterwards where you've been) and one from the Hotel de la Cité in Carcassonne, where they also put bespoke chocolates on your pillow of an evening. And I also had some very nice green tea things from the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco.

I've never pinched a bathrobe either - quite apart from the fact that I wouldn't do that kind of thing, they're always far too enormous.

leonie said...

that was brilliant. thank you.

(there's a new little shop around the corner from me here in Berlin, that above its door proudly displays in big flashy letters: NIGHT AND DAILY. when I pass it I usually either wince or giggle, depending on my mood.)

John Cowan said...

The little bottles are still to be found in North America (just to improve our tourism position), probably required by law or something. I always take them all with me, on the ground that they are consumables that are bundled with the room, like the piece of chocolate on the pillow (and unlike the pillow itself, which would be clearly stealing to take).

After all, they would have nothing to say if you actually used up all the bottles, and who's to say you didn't? I certainly do -- many moons later, at home.