Lost in Translation

Umbrellas sheltering the unjust?

The rain it raineth every day

Upon the just and unjust fellah:

But more upon the just because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

This daft ditty came into my head as a sudden shower threatened to stop our concreting efforts in the yard – we’re nearly ready to show you the final result – watch this space.  And I thought – ‘If you, dear English reader of my blog, had been here with us, whether you know that verse or not, you’d probably have come up with some doggerel of your own – a nursery rhyme perhaps’:

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester

In a shower of rain.

He stepped in a puddle

Right up to his middle,

And never went there again.

And then I realised that if instead you’d been with me, dear French reader, I wouldn’t have been talking about ‘just and unjust fellahs’ at all: lost in translation doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m finding that more and more, I’m missing that shared cultural experience. By culture, I don’t mean the literature, the art and so on. To an extent you can mug up your Molière, get up to date with Gavalda.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four….

I mean the shared heritage we all grow up with from childhood. In France I don’t know the equivalent of that whole children’s choosing routine that involves ‘one potato, two potato, three potato, four…..’, or ‘ip dip dip, my little ship, sailing on the water, like a cup and saucer…..’

I don’t know how to criticise someone’s persistently down-beat attitude other than by telling them not to be such a Tony Hancock. Or a Grumpy Old Man.

Anyone in the UK, I guess, would immediately understand ‘I speak English. I learn it from a book’. That’s Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Astonishingly, a French woman actually said that to me last week. How could I have explained, if I’d given in to the almost uncontainable urge to burst out laughing?

Then there are all those people we feel we almost know, but who are probably unknown abroad. Anne Widdecombe and other politicians like her have gone from Scourge of The Left to National Treasure in the blink of an eye.  In France, who cares?  People like me rely on the likes of Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson to come up with new ideas for Thursday’s meal.  Who does the job in France?

I’ve not heard programmes like ‘The News Quiz’ on French radio.  It would be lost on me if I had.  But then I can read ‘Private Eye’ with some enjoyment and comprehension.  ‘Le Canard Enchainé’?  Not a chance

Mine is the popular culture of an already bygone age. I know cream’s ‘naughty but nice’, and that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ (it isn’t), but in the right company, I understand and am understood.  Of course I’m not really complaining that I can’t go round France talking in clichés.  What I do mind is that here, I don’t recognise the allusions that I do hear, and I certainly can’t make them myself. It’ll simply have to remain a closed book (or switched off TV).

10 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. Are you talking foreign here? Or am I just odd? Because a lot of the allusions you cite in this post are actually quite alien to me, even though, like you, I grew up in England (just a little bit later :-)). I’ve never heard of just and unjust fellahs (though I know a few) or ip dip dip or Doctor Foster, for example. If I had time, I’d follow all your links and look them up! But the thing is that those that I recognise – like Nigel, for instance – seem to be part of another world, where another Kalba once lived … Funny, how we’re all different …


    1. Kalba, I think you miss the point I was actually trying to make. Yes, I do miss being able to make allusions to popular culture that are understood here. But much more, I miss not understanding THEIR allusions, and not being able to counter with references of my own. Which school playground did you frequent by the way??


      1. No, I do understand that. Just observing that I don’t seem to have those links into a cultural heritage that others do. Bloggerboy makes a good point – maybe it’s something to do with my not having kids or indeed any family, and of always having lived ‘on the edge’ of what a lot of people consider normal. I think I chose early on to have a nomadic heart, which means that I don’t have the kind of roots that others put down. Where I am is who I am. But I’m fascinated by the differences between people and how we all experience culture change so differently.


      2. I DO need to put down roots. And it’s hard to do so when so much of what people take for granted as ‘background knowlege’ (e.g. few Brits are probably unaawre of John Prescott’s uncanny ability to chew up the English language whilst simultaneously putting his foot in his mouth ) is either inaccessible, or gained as a result of real effort. It’s like having to ask people perpetually to have to explain the punch-line of a joke. Exhausting for both parties.


  2. I had the advantage of raising two children in a foreign culture and watching them go from toddlers to pre-school to school age. It gave me a chance to delve deep into the German psyche. (Now, I’m afraid to go into the woods … har.). Part of it is generational. We amis make running references to TV ads that have not run for decades. We date ourselved this way but also communicate our shared experiences. Some of the stuff repeats itself each generation. I’m amazed by how many silly jokes that we told as kids still make the rounds. Maybe you should hand out with younger French people who have young children.


    1. Well, actually we do have quite a lot of friends with teenagers, though fewer have small children. But in consequence I am reasonably fluent in French text-speak, which may not be my most useful accomplishment. I was thinking of you, and others like you, as I wrote my blog, and wondered if your moving abroad so young had an effect on your apparent ability to settle – fewer decades of ‘stuff’? Also the fact that you have been raising your family in your adopted country, so you are building a shared family culture together. My children – and grandchildren – remain in the UK. By the way, I’m missing your posts…..


  3. Fascinating discussion and I know exactly what Margaret means. Regarding the opening rhymes however I suspect that their strangeness to some of you might be due to not having been brought up in Yorkshire! Margaret, you’re the first person I’ve heard refer to the unjust fellah since my dad and his brothers. There are words and “well known” phrases I still use quite naturally which leave my southern husband looking completely non plussed. Regarding cultural differences and the Germans our daughter-in-law once actually said “I understand the words but I don’t understand why it’s funny”, this from a woman who has lived in the UK for at least 10 years and is almost totally bi-lingual. Their son is being brought up in both languages so I’m going to have to settle down and learn German if I’m to know what he’s saying to his mother (and get one over on my son who is most definitely not a linguist!)


    1. How odd about the ‘unjust fellah’. I met him at school in London! And I can really relate to “I understand the words but I don’t understand why it’s funny”. Unfortunately, I don’t even always understand the words……. I hope southern Jeremy doesn’t act all mardy when he doesn’t understand you


  4. No, I just get the pat on the head look. In my bit of Bradford we’d say maunjy (never written it before!)


Comments are closed.