Jacques Chirac’s magical stickbread

Arnold Zwicky’s lovely post this morning about baguette and how it’s surprisingly not a diminutive of bague threw me into reminiscing about my time in Paris — 12 years of my life. Instead of continuing to hijack the comment space over there, this is something to pursue on this blog, even though we seem to be averaging a post every year and a half.

In particular, there’s the half-remembered anecdote about Jacques Chirac, the former French president, which I’ve now chased up acros the ‘nets.

Baguette (the bread), of course, is a part of life in France with a high level of cultural significance, but the word can refer to all sorts of things parting from the basic meaning “small stick”: chopsticks are baguettes, and so are drumsticks (the kind you use for operating drums with [1]); there’s conductor’s batons; and there are magic wands. And this is where the anecdote picks up: In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president in an election that tipped from the political left to the right. In his first public speech, he said that he didn’t have a magic wand to solve France’s economic problems (unemployment was very high and I remember research labs getting close to being broke). The phrase was seen as the new president’s central statement and widely reported including in the international press. Unfortunately, in some countries the meaning of the word baguette was so strongly linked to the bakery product — 250 g of delicious crust with a little bit of relatively heavy white dough inside — that reporters didn’t think when translating baguette magique (“magic wand”) into their own language. A Belgian paper reported on the election and speech as follows:

De Morgen
The Belgian paper De Morgen of September 1995 reporting that the newly elected president of France “has no ‘magical stickbread'” (heeft geen “magisch stokbrood”) in a mis-translation of baguette magique [2]

Those crazy French with their over-emphasis on food — ascribing magical qualities to something mundane as bread.

As far as I can tell from trying to find a correct account of this story online, the phrase magisch stokbrood has since become a little bit of a jocular cliché in Dutch and/or Flemish (I do not know if the spelling differs in the two languages), following the rise of the Harry Potter book series.

(As a final note, I chose between magic and magical in English on intuition. It’s clearly magic wand in the idiomatic expression, but I think magical stickbread sounds better than magic stickbread. Opinions?)

[1] As for the chicken parts, in France chicken legs aren’t usually separated into what in English are called “thighs” and “drumsticks”, and the entire thing — about a meat portion’s worth for a smallish chicken — is referred to as cuisse (“thigh”).
[2] I was very happy to find this image in a Belgian blog in Flemish, where I took the liberty to steal it.

A construction the likes of which I’ve never been able to let go

So an Air France Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic last night. It’s a frightening event, and the quasi-certainty that 228 people died, maybe without a trace, in a cataclysmic accident, is terribly sad.

BBC news quotes the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s public address: “It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen.” The wording of the quote made me think. It sounds a bit overly convoluted to my ear, but then, this may very well express a level of pathos appropriate to the situation. Sarkozy, of course, spoke French. Interestingly, this exact wording is all over the English-language press. It must have come from an early press release: it’s doubtful there are official English translations of the pronouncements of the French president.

What is the French original? The paper Libération’s habit of publishing such things verbatim — though cleaned up — helps us out. Here is the first bit of Sarkozy’s public declaration:

Cette nuit nous avons perdu la trace d’un avion d’Air France avec 228 personnes à bord, passagers et personnels d’équipage. Nous n’avons aucun élément précis sur ce qui s’est passé. C’est une catastrophe comme jamais la compagnie Air France n’en avait connue.

The French construction employed by Sarkozy, which has no one-to-one correspondence in English, goes a long way to explain the translator’s choice. Ne … jamais can mean “never” or “ever”, depending of polarity, and there’s the partitive pronoun en, which refers back to une catastrophe. We could gloss the French as “This is a catastrophe like never the airline Air France [of it] had known,” or, using the more idiomatic present perfect, substituting seen for known, and cleaning up the word order, “This is a catastrophe like the airline Air France has never seen.”

The translator’s thought process now becomes clearer:

  • They aimed at preserving the comparison “like”, but getting rid of the informal aspect
  • They were quite happy to preserve the partitive en, somehow

“Like” therefore becomes nominalized as “the likes of which”.

In order to to get input from other English speakers, I asked around on Twitter and Facebook, provocatively, whether “the likes of which Air France had never seen” sounded clumsy. Several people were kind enough to reply:

  • Some found nothing remotely remarkable about the formulation, or even consider it the preferred way of rendering the original French
  • Some came out close to my gloss, with “a catastrophe such as Air France has never seen” or even “a catastrophe like Air France has never seen”
  • Some preferred turning “never” into “ever” (or left it out) and “like” into “unlike”, and even managed to slip the en back in in the form of “any”: “a catastrophe unlike any Air France has (ever) seen”
  • Some, including myself, went for a bold recasting: “an unprecedented catastrophe for Air France”
  • Finally, the linguist John Lawler came out in favour of “a catastrophe like Air France hasn’t never seen”, but implicitly admitted this version was really quite impossible, adding: “Alas, English Negative Concord was lost with the Dative case, and has been replaced with Negative Polarity.”

Quite a cornucopia of choices here.