Even if you’ve never taken a French class in your life, you know what “bonjour” and “monsieur” mean, so go ahead and translate “Bonjour monsieur.” I’ll just wait here.
Great. If you gave it a try, thank you for indulging me, but unfortunately there is one (and only one!) correct answer: “I’m not translating this until I get more context. GIVE ME MORE CONTEXT.”
You might want information as simple as the time of day. “Bonjour” means “hello,” but it also means “good morning” and “good afternoon” in many parts of the French-speaking world; you’ll want to keep those options in mind.
However, the speaker’s location and variety of French also matter. For example, “bon matin” is commonly used for “good morning” among French speakers in Canada and Louisiana; if the speaker has “bon matin” in their everyday vocabulary, you’ll probably rule out “good morning” as your best likely translation of “bonjour.”
Aside from all that, who is this “monsieur,” and in what context is he being addressed? A bilingual dictionary might suggest that the most common translation of “monsieur” is “Mr.,” but “Hello, mister,” is not a common way for English speakers to greet one another. “Sir” will work in many formal contexts, but it won’t account for all the circumstances in which a person might say “Bonjour monsieur,” and the variety of English into which you are translating may affect your choices as well. If the speaker is a teenage student saying hello to a teacher in the morning, what greeting will your target readership recognize as standard: “Good morning, sir,” “Good morning, Mr. So-and-So,” or something else?
But wait! Why are we saying “monsieur” at all? Is it because the gender of the person being addressed is important? Not necessarily. Many French speakers have a general aversion to one-word utterances, which can come across as abrupt or even rude. For example, if someone tells me that they are going on vacation next month, I might ask “Where?” in English, but in French I’d ask “Où ça?” rather than just “Où?” The “ça” doesn’t add anything significant in terms of meaning—“Où ça?” is akin to “Where’s that?” or “Whereabouts?”—but the inclusion of a second word has the effect of softening the question. The same principle applies to greetings; where an English speaker might just say one word, a French speaker is more likely to use a greeting and a name or designation of some kind (the equivalent of “Good morning, everyone,” or “Hello, friends,” for example). Maybe, then, all “Bonjour monsieur” really means is “Hello.” (Or “Good morning.” Or “Good afternoon.” You get the idea.)
Of course, all this is assuming that you intend to make the dialogue sound natural to the target reader—or that you’re a language teacher or learner aiming to communicate appropriately in a target language culture. It’s also possible that you’d prefer to preserve a hint of the source language in your translation so as to emphasize the specificity of the source text and/or its setting. This concept in translation theory—domestication vs. foreignization—is a topic for another time, but now that I’ve mentioned foreignization . . .
Noticing this type of conversational habit is useful not only for translators but also for writers of dialogue. Let’s say you’re writing a character whose first and strongest language is French and who acquired proficiency in English as an adult. You don’t want to lean on stereotypes and replace all their th sounds with the letter z (please don’t!), but the recent acquisition of a new language is an important aspect of this character’s experience, and you want it to be reflected in their conversation patterns. Looking at everyday phrases in the character’s two languages can give you insight into the kinds of conversational habits that a learner might transfer from one language to another—habits that a reader might not consciously recognize as French but that distinguish this character’s speech patterns from those of your other characters.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.
Hilary Leichter’s 2020 debut novel, Temporary, is a brilliant satire in which regular employment (“the steadiness”) eludes the protagonist, who accepts a series of increasingly bizarre temporary work placements. How bizarre? When she’s posted to a pirate ship, she thinks the lingo will be easy enough to learn, but it turns out “Davy Jones’s locker” is where the pirates store their office supplies. The narrative of this fanciful and unexpectedly moving novel is as fragmented, disorienting, and ultimately rewarding as its protagonist’s career progression.
Words Against Strangers is a new daily game that challenges you to list as many words as possible in a given category (think “nouns that start with v” or “eight-letter words that include the letter n”). You’ll be racing against the clock (four rounds per day, each lasting one minute) but also against one random person who volunteered to play the quiz a few days in advance. I got to be the “stranger” for game #38, and it’s not too late to challenge me; you can go back and play the games you’ve missed.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
See you back here soon!