Wordgames without frontiers

As my first post mentioned, translators must often navigate treacherous linguistic spaces fraught with cross-cultural traps, where simple dictionary lookups and Google searches can shed little light. A prime example is in the title of this blog itself. When Kiwi songwriting brothers Tim and Neil Finn penned the lyrics “The lust of the pioneer/will acknowledge no frontier,” they weren’t imagining a pioneer whose spirit of adventure leads him, counter-intuitively, to spurn rather than embrace the sort of wide open frontier spaces that we associate with the American West, Canadian Prairie, or Australian Outback. They were using frontier in its British sense, a usage retained in their New Zealand dialect, where it generally just means “a border.” The American author Bill Bryson wrote of the United States’ 19th-century westward push:

Frontier, which meant (and still means) a national border in British English, took on in America the new sense of the ever-moving dividing line between wilderness and civilization.

The Finn brothers’ adventurer, then, is one whose passions drive him to travel the globe without thought of being hemmed in by any country. So we can see the potential for a massive gap in understanding. When frontier drifts from its European usage to its North American usage, the image of a line drawn on a map, or a long series of stakes planted in the ground, likewise shifts to the image of a space expanding outward. You can’t build a home or a community in a one-dimensional line. But you can easily envision one being built within a space. And that’s how North Americans understand a frontier today, as a great wilderness; it doesn’t even really imply “borderlands” as much as it once did. Up further north, a government-run “Invest In Canada” website tells readers:

Yukon is one of the last vast frontiers on Earth, with a wealth of natural resources and untapped business potential.

As dictated by the federal government’s bilingualism policy, this same text is also available in carefully written French, and if you click the “Français” link, you discover that these “vast frontiers” come out in French as “vastes étendues de terres vierges” (vast expanses of unspoiled land). Assuming that the French was written after the English rather than the other way around, this is a fine translation of the phrase. It accurately renders the idea that in the Canadian linguistic consciousness, just as the American one, a “frontier” represents a habitable space rather than a mere dividing line. This reflects the thinking of Canadian historians like Ian Angus and Charles Blattberg, who considered a frontier to be a borderland that moves over time by absorbing the areas beyond it. What the Yukon text’s translator didn’t do, and clearly shouldn’t have done, was translate “frontier” as frontière, even though this might be a British-trained translator’s first instinct.

Like so many other linguistic paradoxes across cultures, the tendancy of Europeans to think of borders and frontiers in a different way than North Americans do has its roots in diverging etymologies: word histories that drifted apart as colonists fanned out across the globe. Both of these English words come from French—the roots are bordure and frontière—and in the language of origin, frontière remains synonymous with a boundary dividing nations. You’ve probably heard of the aid organization that was founded in Paris in 1971 as Médecins Sans Frontières. Within a few years, Americans had begun referring to it as “Doctors Without Borders”, a name that seems to have first popped up in English, in lowercase form, in a 1976 Time Magazine article. The British, however, have always referred to the humanitarian group by its international acronym, MSF, even as its New York office has formally adopted the name Doctors Without Borders.

Just six years before Bernard Kouchner and his associates founded Médecins Sans Frontières, a lighter-hearted mission began within the confederation of regional broadcasters, the EBU: a sort of continent-spanning TV game-show that would match the popularity of the EBU’s annual Eurovision Song Contest while fostering a sense of brotherhood among nations. The result, Jeux sans frontières (literally, “Games Without Frontiers/Borders”) didn’t outlast Eurovision. But it ran for decades, and gave us the clip of people in penguin costumes slipping around a spinning Antarctic gameboard at the top of this post. It also inspired the British musician Peter Gabriel, who included the French refrain “jeux sans frontières” (sung by Kate Bush) in his hit song entitled—what else?—“Games Without Frontiers.”

So far, I’ve left out Australian English’s take on borders and frontiers. But that’s worth a post to itself.

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About Andrew Levine

Andrew Levine is an ATA-certified freelance French-English translator from Brooklyn, New York.
This entry was posted in borders, Euroland, language, translation. Bookmark the permalink.

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