How to Translate “Cheetah” into French
by Robert Masterson
The following excerpt is from an as yet unpublished novel revolving around the lives of the American chanteuse Josephine Baker, the French erstwhile explorer, and the Spanish conquistador Vasco de Gama.
photo credit: Lesley Eringer
It was, in fact, not a jaguar or a leopard, but a pet cheetah named Chiquita at the end of that bejeweled leash and collar, lashing rainbows onto the sidewalk and into passersby’s eyes, looking back over the roadster’s seat at Michel on the sidewalk dripping. La Josephine, la Sauvage Noir, Miss Josephine Baker, never even saw the soaked soon-to-be explorer, but he saw her. Miss Baker looked straight ahead at the avenue and the future; Michel stared at the back of her retreating head.
French is kind of a funny language. Someone once characterized French by saying something like “pronouncing all the letters is for chumps.” One could add, “Capitalization is a whimsical conspiracy.” So, with the Parisian gutter-filth oozing down the front of his second-best jacket, his heart bursting with adoration, Michel turned the phrases “cheetah” and “Chiquita” over in his mind.
“Did you see that black bitch with the leopard?” his brother, Henri, asked in a way that can only be described as rhetorical. Okay. His tone could also be described as “arch.” And he really didn’t say “black bitch,” either. He said something much worse than that, though the base meaning was in the ballpark. So, his tone could be described not only as rhetorical, but also as “arch,” and his vocabulary could also be described as racist, sexist, and vulgar.
“She didn’t slow down; she didn’t even look back.”
“La Josephine never looks back,” Michel sighed.
“She could have killed you.”
“She just did. She already has.”
“Fou merde,” Henri replied. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
So, in English, the word is pronounced “chee-tah,” all fairly simple and straightforward, like a caricature of someone from Boston describing a dishonest card player. In French, however, the word is pronounced something like “gi-pah…” with no real end. It just sort of trails off into nonbeingness through the final, drawn-out vowel. And barely that. If one had a mouth full of, say, gelatin, and tried to say “cheetah” (in English), it would sound a lot like a French person saying the same word if that person also did not just say the word and stop but, instead, said the word and just let it burble away in his or her gelatin-coated throat for an unpleasantly long time.
The cat’s given name was Chiquita, a Spanish word meaning “little one” and Anglicized into “cha-key-tah.” In French, it comes out sounding like “shik-ee-ta,” sounding slurred and a bit drunken though, clearly, thankfully, the word actually ends.
So, there was Michel, covered with what had once been safely and hygienically and glacially working its way toward the Seine by way-of-the-avenue’s trench, there was Michel slowly turning the phrase over and over and it sounded like “le gipah de la Josephine [something mumble something] -nam”? “Namm”? Maybe “numb”?] ‘shik-ee-ta’” in his head. “le Gi-pah de la Josephine […] numb shikeeta” even though it was undeniably spelled out as “le Guépard de Joséphine est nommé Chiquita.” It was just a mush of signs, signifiers, and symbols in the young man's brain.
He saw them, then, the women veiled in the sheerest of fabrics, each with a cheetah at the end of a bejeweled leash and collar, each walking the yellow Sahara sand toward oases of date palms and cool waters, the sun foaming lower than the horizon and the first stars’ glow in the first world coming into its existence. Swimming before his scum-glazed eyeballs, light shimmers of reflected heat, hallucinations, mirage and mirage; burning in his pounding heart the greed and hunger of the explorer, the invader, the conqueror, the ardent and erstwhile lover for always more.
So, it was at that lightning-bolt of a moment that everything was all settled and decided in Michel’s head. It was to be North Africa. He could see it clearly in the light in his head. It was to be the forbidden, fabulously ruined oasis mosque at Smara. He, Michel Vieuxchange, was to be one of the few both daring and accomplished enough to pierce the veil of Islam and return with the precious currency of fame and authority. He was to be the first white man to stand within the moonlit ruins of djinn-haunted Smara.
And “pierce the veil” is an unfortunate choice of both words and ideas. It would be far more accurate to write “ignore the validity of Islam as both a mode of thought, a vehicle for spirituality, and as a way of life some remove and far below that a of middle-class French Christian” and “violate indigenous custom and law” in exchange for membership in L’Académie des explorateurs. The adjectival phrase “first white man” is all things foul, linguistic and colonial. It is a measure of real-life colonialism: patronizing, condescending, racist, Eurocentric, and casually, culturally, and egomaniacally narcissistic. It, the ancient ruins of the oasis holy city of Smara in the southern wasteland (see there? Another loaded, pejorative word), the southern deserts of Morocco, did not exist until he, Michel Vieuxchange, or another similarly complected and culturally conjoined (though preferably not British) “explorer,” saw it with his own eyes, measured it with his own instruments, and mapped it with his own compass and sextant (a birthday gift his parents would rue [another French word, meaning “street” but in this, English usage, meaning “regret.”]).
“Smara,” Michel said. It sounded like “’smerrrr…”
“What?” Henri asked while daubing his brother with a handkerchief, while ruining his handkerchief on his brother.
“I'm going,” Michel continued, speaking to Henri while ignoring Henri’s ministrations, his eyes wandered to a point above Henri’s head where the light was most shimmering, most beckoning. “I'm to be the first white man to see Smara.”
“We’re going home to change your shitty clothes. Idiot [which is the same in French as it is in English.].”
Robert Masterson, professor of English at City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City, has authored Artificial Rats & Electric Cats, Trial by Water, and Garnish Trouble. His work appears in numerous publications and websites. He holds degrees from the University of New Mexico, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado; and Shaanxi Normal University, the People’s Republic of China, and his work has taken him to The PRC, Japan, Ukraine, and most recently India as a student, a reporter, a writer, and a teacher.