We Americans who live in France have a unique challenge this time each year, and it's NOT where to find all the traditional turkey day dinner fixin's (which reminds me, I need more cranberry sauce): it's explaining the history of our Thanksgiving holiday to our French friends and relatives. While other countries may have their own version of a day of Gratitude, the American Thanksgiving is not only a day to gather with family and stuff ourselves full of stuffed turkey and football before passing out on the sofa from the tryptophan overload... it is a day with a story of its own. Telling that story to a bunch of French people, and trying to translate the bits that simply don't want to be translated?
Yeah, only Art Buchwald ever came close. So in honor of you, my readers, for whom I am so grateful, and in memory of Art Buchwald, I give you his classic Thanksgiving column. The French "translations" in parentheses are Buchwald's and are hilariously ridiculous; for those who don't know French, I offer some insights at the end so you'll know WHY this is a classic around here.
Happy Deboutish Merci Donnant Whatever-its-Called!
🍂 🏈 🍷🍴🍗 👪 ❤️ 🙏
Le Grande Thanksgiving
This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pèlerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.
Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :
"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui t'es pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable très emballé ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Où est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun a son gout. )
And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.
Translation Insights (by Lisa)
Note: If I don't list one of the French terms here, it only means Buchwald got it just perfect. A "dinde" IS a turkey. A "pèlerin" IS a pilgrim. And so on.
le Jour de Merci Donnant = the literal translation of The Day of Thank You Giving. Not quite how you'd probably try to say it, but close enough.
les Peaux-Rouges = the Red-Skins. Not P.C. but this was originally written in the 1950s.
a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) = Plymouth, now a famouse AMERICAN CAR
Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) = the French measure distance in Kilometers, and to "stand" is "debout" but there IS no "ish" in French. Probably the funniest part of the whole tale, if you ask me!
Jean Alden = formerly known as JOHN Alden, with a French twist
vieux capitaine = old captain / jeune lieutenant = young lieutenant
allez très vite chez Priscilla - go very fast to Priscilla's house
a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ) = Fanfan la Tulipe was a "swashbuckler" French film in 1952. Nice job on Buchwald's part, bringing in some French cultural references.
You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui t'es pain comme un étudiant ) = You, who are BREAD like a student
fit to be tied ( convenable très emballé ) = suitably very wrapped up
"If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Où est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?) = Where is he, the old Kilometres? Why doesn't he come around to try his luck/take his best shot?
"Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun à son gout. ) = Each to his own taste (a very classic French expression that in current usage could mean anything from "Each to his own" as WE know it, to "Whatever, dude."
Et voila. There you have it. Now, wish me luck in explaining it all to my French guests at dinner.