Thursday, 22 September 2011

Apprivoiser - on translations and friendships

Growing up I had many career dreams: vet, doctor, teacher, missionary in Africa, movie director, mathematician, book writer and another couple of hundred more short-lived aspirations. 
I didn't really pursue any of them, the world is so full of possibilities that I really was at a loss deciding what to do with my life. 
I did my schooling in Italy, which meant that after middle school, which you finish at around 13yo, you have to choose from a variety of high schools, some more academic (lyceums) which prepare you for university, some more technical or practical which prepare you for a job. Things might have changed nowadays, I really haven't kept abreast of many social changes in Italy since leaving. 

At 13 I had no fixed idea of what to do. I was clearly keen on mathematics and a scientific lyceum (emphasising on maths and sciences) seemed a perfect option, but did not open many doors at 18 in case I didn't want to continue to uni. 
But I loved reading. And writing. And I dreamt of travelling. So my mum talked me into enrolling in a linguistic lyceum. Over the course of the 5 years I studied: Italian, English, French, German, Latin, geography, history, maths, physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy. A wonderful smattering of so many interesting subjects!

I picked up new languages easily, which is definitely due to my being bilingual (thanks Mum!), and the best part of that was being able to read books in their original language. Because translations often don't do the original book justice.
I have worked for a while as a translator, and it is a tough job. Some words and some expressions are so intrinsic to a country and a culture that a translation can merely give the gist of the idea without giving an insight of what the author really meant. Languages are fully impregnated with their People's history, traditions, habits, ideologies, customs, and so much of that is lost in translation.

One such word that comes to mind is the French verb “apprivoiser”, which does not have an exact translation in English. It’s sort of like “domesticating” someone.
I mention it because it’s a crucial word in one of the chapters of The Little Prince, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which I had the pleasure of reading in its original language.

Instead, the verb “to tame” has always been used for the English version. The difference is well expressed by this critical note on SparkNotes: 
The episode with the fox requires a note on Saint-Exupéry’s use of the verb “tame.” In English, this word connotes domestication and subservience. But the French have two verbs that mean “to tame.” One, “domestiquer,” does, in fact, mean to make a wild animal subservient and submissive. The Little Prince, however, uses the verb “apprivoiser,” which implies a more reciprocal and loving connection. The distinction between these two words is important, since the original French word does not have the connotations of mastery and domination that unfortunately accompany the English translation.
image from here

This is a short excerpt from Chapter 21, taken from here
"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."

"I am a fox," the fox said.
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
"What does that mean--'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. “It means to establish ties."
"'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."
"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.
"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."
The next day the little prince came back.
"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what  hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . ."
Here’s an online version if you wish to read the book. I highly recommend it as it is the vessel of much wisdom and wit. Read at least Chapter One, which is a single enlightened page.

I always loved this passage. If you read it bearing in mind what I told you about “apprivoiser” and in your head replace “tame” as you read, you’ll realise how true it rings.
Friendships indeed are about domesticating each other, about studying each other from a distance, about learning about one another before being able to create ties.
So many times we rush into friendships, we meet someone we like and start doing so many things with them, seeing them often etc. And often these friendships fizzle off, because there hasn't been the time to "apprivoise" each other.

When you don't give the friendship enough time to grow of its own accord you end up not appreciating the differences of "language" that you and your new friend have. You end up having misunderstandings because you are indeed talking two different languages: you each have your own history, traditions, habits, ideologies and customs.

I have often thought about this passage with regards to blogging. How much do we get to know about a person through their writings. Our true self is exposed to the world and so many meaningful connections are made here. A bit like we used to do in the old days when we had pen pals. Through our writings we get the time to know each other’s languages.
I have recently met a fellow blogger. She is just as lovely and affable and interesting and inspiring in real life as I had expected from her writings. She welcomed me and my busy kids in her home with arms open, and having learnt much about each other’s “language” before hand, I didn’t feel much of the awkwardness of a first meeting, I truly felt like she was an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years.
I like blogging, I like the people I'm connecting with, I like being inspired by others. And I love that all the things I'm saying are not getting lost in translation.


  1. What a lovely post, Sara! What a priviledge it would have been to read The Little Prince in French! (My mother was a French teacher and encouraged us to learn, but after 6 years of school French I still struggled!). I understand how the meaning and beauty of some words are hard to explain in our very limited English! (I have the same issues with explaining some Indonesian words). I love the sentiments of 'apprivoiser'... and love how you've applied it to friendships. Lovely, lovely! xxx

  2. I have been thinking that this blogging caper is a lot like having penpals. I haven't been lucky enough to meet a fellow blogger yet, but I really hope I do sometime.

    Such a thoughtful post. I am inspired to read The Little Prince now.

  3. thanks for the lovely feedback Deb and Lee :) I hope you do get to read it Lee :)