Blog / 2021 / Always a Non-native Speaker

September 8, 2021

This site is almost entirely bilingual. Click the French flag at the top right and, as with most pages on gwennseemel.com, you’ll be taken to the French version of this post. This multilingualness is not easy to maintain—my French is fluent, but not necessarily fluidly fluent. I usually use Google Translate to do a basic conversion of my English, leaving me with just every other sentence to overhaul, instead of a full text to translate.

The other day, as I was adding a transcript to this video about what makes queer culture so vital to our continued existence as a species, Google Translate revealed a disturbing bias.

The app called me a pedophile.

Google Translate thinks that “queer” means “pedophile”
screenshot of Google Translate

For a people who have, since the 1600s, had an institution whose sole purpose is to perfect their language—hello Académie Française—the French have an oddly unthinking relationship with slang. For example, the word “putain,” which translates literally to “whore,” is used by small children and adults alike in much the same way that “crap” is used in English, and the misogyny of “putain" and of its liberal use is rarely acknowledged.

And then there’s “pédé,” a slur for homosexual people that is, unfortunately, not just Google Translate’s preferred term. A few years ago, I got into an online discussion with some French acquaintances and was alarmed to discover that they didn’t realize it came from the word “pédérastie,” which describes a relationship between a mature man and a young boy in ancient Greece. Worse still, after learning the etymology, they insisted that the word was so thoroughly divorced from this original context that it shouldn’t worry me.

But that’s the thing about being a non-native speaker: you may miss some nuances, but you’re also, by necessity, more thoughtful about the language.

It’s definitely true for me in English as well. I may be more fluidly fluent in this language, but, because my brain isn’t an English-only space, problematic etymology isn’t something I can easily dismiss.

Just like when I hear “putain” and “pédé,” every time the word “bitch” is used by a man, a jolt runs through my body, and the speaker suddenly looks different to me. Same for “spirit animal.” The colloquial use of this term diminishes the spiritual practices of First Peoples. It’s a little like how calling your barista “the messiah of coffee” because they save your life every day, might make certain Jews, Christians, or Muslims unhappy. Especially if it became a thing that lots of people said and if these monotheistic religions were hijacked as often as the spirituality of Indigenous Peoples is.

The very French mistranslation of my queerness by Google Translate makes me want to always be a non-native speaker and it makes me want to surround myself with non-native speakers. And when I say “non-native speaker” I mean it about language but also everything we do. Bringing a fresh and thoughtful perspective requires energy, of course, but, if we’re just living without really paying attention, what’s the point of any of it?


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