Words (8)


In “It went without saying”,  I used the phrase “Gros-Jean comme devant” (that was translated in English by “back to square one”) an obsolete term in modern French, originally spread by   Jean de La Fontaine, a famous French fabulist from 17th century. It is an expression whose meaning in French  cannot easily  be guessed from the context. An understanding of its etymology is needed to make sense of the expression.

“Gros Jean (Big John)” was once a synonym for “peasant”, “boor”, “ignorant”, while “devant” (today “in front of”) meant  “before.” The expression means that after having had great hopes, one is not more advanced than before, or has not made any progress.

This expression was used by Jean de La Fontaine  in “The Milkmaid and the pot of milk“*.

In English, this expression was translated in the fable by “I am John Smith as before”, which suits the poem  , but I was unsure about the effect it would create in “It went without saying”.  I chose “back to square one” in the English translation , which conveys  the French sense, although with less imagery than in French. Google translate suggests for its part “wholesale jeans as before”.  This is a good example to discourage students to write their homework  in English before translating them in Google translate. Although there is nothing wrong with Google translate, unless one is aware of its limitation, the results can be astonighing, to say the least.

*There are several versions of the fable.


One thought on “Words (8)”

  1. Jean de La Fontaine. In elementary school they teach us his tales 🙂 Google translate applied to poetry is still very far to be successful. It just invert the words but cannot guess the meaning and sense. For that I appreciate a lot this side of your French compositions >‿◠. Thanks Sylvie.


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