A colleague of mine sent me an email the other day asking for some translation help. As the executive assistant to one of the big bosses, she was preparing a meeting in Paris with some foreign executives, and had written the assistant of one of them to ask what they typically had for breakfast. The reply had her mystified, which led her to seek out my help.
'Miss Penelope,' her email read, 'could you help me out with what this means? I am at a loss!'
I scanned the list, and to my horror, saw the foreign assistant's original message :
"They prefer to eat fresh fruits such as cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, mango and papaya. In the mornings, fresh fruit, cinnamon raisin bagel with honey nut cream cheese, coffee with two brown sugar (sugar in the raw) and hazel nut creamer. They especially enjoy Aquafina water, cranberry juice and Tropicana apple juice. . "
My colleague had highlighted the words she could not immediately understand :
Cinnamon raisin bagel
Honey nut cream cheese
Sugar in the raw
I sent her my best attempt (there is no way to translate 'hazelnut creamer' - thank god.) but I didn't at first understand why she needed these particularly American items translated. I picked up the phone.
'Hi, it's me. Um, what is this for?' I asked. I couldn't imagine she was putting this in a presentation. My company is hardly Kraft Foods, after all. She explained she had to organize a breakfast meeting and just wanted to make sure she got the right things for everyone.
'Is there an American grocery store in Paris where I can find this stuff?' she asked, sounding a little desperate.
'Oh thank god, no,' I said, 'Heaven forbid! It's bad enough you guys have fucking Oreo cookie fucking cereal but if you start stocking hazelnut creamer I swear I'll jump off the Eiffel Tower in despair.'
There was a slight uncomfortable silence on the other end.
'Let me explain what 'hazelnut creamer' is. 'Creamer' is an entirely processed white liquid made to look like milk, but doesn't have the slightest drop of anything naturally occurring, like, oh I don't know, cream, to which is then added entirely fake hazelnut flavoring. You put this in your coffee.'
'Oh my,' she replied.
'Exactly,' I said, 'and, okay, bagels. You can find bagels in the Jewish quarter, but they are certainly not going to be fucking cinnamon raisin, for god's sake, and if you are remotely able to find cream cheese, it absolutely will not be goddamn honey nut.'
'Okay,' she said slowly, sensing she just needed to let me blow off the steam.
'And Aquafina water? Does this person actually think it is necessary to specify the brand name of fucking bottled water? It's like if you told someone in buttfuck Indiana that your boss needed to have a liter bottle of Panna, Lavazza espresso, pain au lait and chouquettes, with a heaping bowl of mirabelles and reines claudes.'
'I see,' she said, sounding relieved she wouldn't be schlepping all over the Marais.
'I'm going to hazard a guess,' I continued, 'this person who responded to you has never left the United States.'
'I suppose not,' she replied.
'Look, this is what you do : you order a nice quantity of croissants and pain au chocolat - everybody loves them - some fresh fruit, some bottled water and coffee, and it will be just fine. Trust me.'
And Time magazine declared French culture dead.
Not quite yet.