Two of Hearts: Words for Snow

l\'eau et l\'O2 font la neige

In English I can breathe like air.
In French my easy breath is gone
to water that I’m choking on.
J’ai changé d’air, j’habite en Suisse,
I cannot live in cowardice,
so I speak in French a little more
l’air anglais dedans et dehors
the fractal mix like falling snow
la langue française joue le rôle de l’eau
that’s crystalised like none before
une neige si belle, j’en veux encore
l’eau à la bouche, mes langues y glissent,
I want to see some more of this
et rester dans la neige qui fond.
Je veux nager comme un poisson
dans l’eau française, courante et claire.




Apologies to those who only understand half of this poem. It’s explained further down. Further apologies to those who understand both parts well enough to know that the French doesn’t make much sense because I’m overreaching myself. I didn’t have a lot of time to check it with a native speaker, because I was invited out to a delicious Israeli lunch at a friend’s place and didn’t get home until late. It was worth it.

Shortly after I moved to Geneva at the end of March 2005, I experienced two amazing things for the first time. Seeing falling snow, and speaking French. In a workshop of the Geneva Writers’ Group about a year later, I compared these two experiences, and jotted down a few lines about it, in French. My main idea at that time was the expression, ‘l’air anglais’, which means ‘an English air’ with both senses of the word ‘air’. I thought that perhaps, one day, when I was better at French, I’d write a half-English, half-French poem comparing English to air and French to water, and describing the gradual shift towards French, never quite rid of the English influence (the air of Englishness), and thus yielding a beautiful snow.

I didn’t expect to write such a poem this week. I thought I’d end up writing a soppy love poem about two hearts, bonded like two atoms of oxygen. I didn’t even have time to deal the cards until Thursday night. Then on Friday morning I saw the card of Saussure, and was amused by the fact that he was covered in snow.

The only Saussure I knew of was a linguist, so I assumed it was him, and thought about writing something loosely based on the myth that eskimos have many more words for snow than we do. It would be called ‘Words for Snow’ and it would have something to do with the way having distinct words for things helps us differentiate them. Then I remembered those few lines I’d written, and decided it was time to take the plunge into the aerated French water.

In the interests of symmetry, I didn’t stop at snow, but went all the way to pure French at the end. As you’ve surely noticed, the poem, like myself, starts out in English gradually gets more French as it goes on, in the pattern EEEFEEFEFEFFEFFF. In a way it represents a one-dimensional snowflake, but mostly it just reflects the content of the poem. The rhymes are approximate, since French does not have the same sounds as English, but the rhyme scheme is also symmetrical, something like AEBEBECFCEDEDFGEGFDEDFCFCEBFBFAF, where XF represents a French sound which is somewhat similar to the English sound XE. The worst match is in the Bs, I couldn’t find anything in English which sounded very much like that particular French nasal vowel, and didn’t want to lose the lines I’d written. A better writer would know when and how to let go of things she’d written.

The picture is supposed to be read, « l’eau et l’O2 font la neige », or if you’re French, “Water and oxygen make snow” which is not a very comprehensive description of the phenomenon, but it’s the best I can do with so few magnets. Also, the word poking out of the mouth is ‘langue‘ which means either tongue or language.

So now for the translation. Perhaps later I’ll translate the entire poem, creating a new poem with the languages inverted, but for now I’ll just explain what I intended the French lines to mean.

J’ai changé d’air, j’habite en Suisse,

Changer d’air literally means ‘change the air’, which of course goes with the English=air metaphor. It is also an expression which, according to my French-French dictionary, can mean ‘leave, either temporarily or definitively’, but according to this wordreference thread (which I probably should have read before publishing this) can also mean something more like ‘get a breath of fresh air’ or ‘change the scenery’. J’habite en Suisse simply means I live in Switzerland. So together, this means, ‘I left definitively, I live in Switzerland’.

l’air anglais dedans et dehors

I mentioned this one before. It literally means ‘the English air inside and out’ referring either to air inside and outside of a snowflake, and the ‘air of English’ in my French.

la langue française joue le rôle de l’eau

Nothing fancy here, it just means, ‘the French language plays the role of water’. I’m almost certain this actually means what I want it to mean.

une neige si belle, j’en veux encore

Another simple one, though I’m not sure of the grammar. It should mean, ‘Such beautiful snow, I want more of it’.

l’eau à la bouche, mes langues y glissent,

This means something like ‘my mouth waters’ (again it’s a reference to water being French) ‘my tongues glide there’ which could either mean literal tongues in a mouth, or languages. I was gong to just say ‘the tongue/language glides’ but a friend said that this had too much of an implication of it being someone else’s tongue, which indeed it is in sense of French being someone else’s language, but it’s not something I wanted people thinking about in the other sense. So just to make it sound really bizarre, I claimed ownership of both languages and changed it to my tongues.

et rester dans la neige qui fond.
Je veux nager comme un poisson
dans l’eau française, courante et claire.

This should mean something like, ‘and stay in the melting snow, I want to swim like a fish in the flowing and clear French water’. I specifically chose the word courante because this is the word used for running water, and also for fluent speech.

In the last four weeks I’ve used up four ideas from before this adventure started. Next week, I guess I’ll have to think of something new.

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  1. #1 by PowerBill on June 16, 2008 - 1:08 pm

    Well, its good enough for me. The Israeli food sounds enticing, too. I was actually thinking of you as I went oversea and into France the other day. It is an good chance that you chose the theme you did as it paralleled my experience complimentarily. I should have taken photos of the interesting french plaques and blue tacked toys on the oxygen equipment, but I was wary of making suspicious movements as my guide had a gun handy. (I think he also heard me muttering about the Rainbow Warrior as well…)


  2. #2 by Angela Brett on June 16, 2008 - 1:46 pm

    You went to the French consulate? Incidentally, I went to France to eat the Israeli food. I really should mutter about the Rainbow Warrior more often. Rainbow rhubarb rhubarb warrior…


  3. #3 by PowerBill on June 17, 2008 - 12:12 am

    How would I go over sea to the consulate? It was a French Frigate! Parked in Auckland harbour where the cruiseliners normally park! (For all you non New-Zealanders and non greenpeace, this is just a short distance from where french agents blew up the previous Rainbow Warrior in the 80’s)
    There was a great pig sign at the gangway saying “ABSOLUTELY NO BAGS ALLOWED!” and a sailor to enforce it. I think maybe they should have written it in french as well so that the guard could read it. All he did was what the main-gate CERN guards used to do. He stared at everyone coming in (every time they came in!) and ignored them when going out. The armed guard on board was a little more perturbed by my lugging on my backpack and poking at all the interesting technical gadgets I found. Maybe I could go back and take photos of all the ridiculouse stuff they have laying about. Now where did my ‘Friends of Greenpeace’ pin go to…


  4. #4 by Angela Brett on July 22, 2008 - 12:19 am

    I guess the automatic pingback didn’t work this time. Here is the translation of the poem into half-French, half-English (as opposed to half-English, half-French.)


  5. #5 by Angela Brett on July 27, 2008 - 9:44 pm

    Ah, now it does it.


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