Speak Easy

Lisa drawing

Lisa Vanden Bos, originally from New Jersey and in Paris since 1989, is co-owner of FUSAC, the magazine and website for English speakers in Paris. She has created three volumes of the Speak Easy Book of French and English idiomatic expressions and collaborated on the book 90+ Ways You Know You’re Becoming French. Lisa never tires of exploring Paris, France and French language and culture. In addition to our Paris connection, Lisa and I also share a love of  Montana. Today, I’m thrilled to talk to her about her book series and passion for reading in French and English.

How did you decide to write a book series of idiomatic expressions?

Speak Easy puzzles have been part of the FUSAC magazine on paper and online for 25 years. Some readers requested that we do a book. We did volume 1 in 2007, volume 2 in 2011 and volume 3 in 2015.

FUSAC readers are people who are interested in languages and either are, or wish to be, bilingual French-English. Our readers come from both sides either as French speakers or as English speakers wanting to learn the other language. So we tried to develop a game that could help both groups. And a game has to be fun so we chose idiomatic expressions which play with the colorful and cultural part of language. We have even had native speakers learning expressions in their native languages because of regional or older expressions that they find in the puzzles. Language and most of all idioms are in constant evolution.

To be bilingual and have a flowing conversation a speaker needs the depth and color which come with idiomatic expressions. They are the cultural part of a language and are central to everyday conversations. Without knowledge of idiomatic expressions the speaker cannot become completely integrated.

The purpose of these games is the translation and the transposition (because they don’t really translate) of idiomatic expressions between French and English. The reader chooses the French word or expression to match the English equivalent. For example in English we say “in for a dime, in for a dollar” however in French the expression is about wine (Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire). In English we say “To make a mountain out of a molehill”, but in French the molehill is cheese! (En faire tout un fromage).

The recently published volume 3 Speak Easy Puzzles book contains 50 puzzles. The new book is richly illustrated with original watercolors. There are also some puzzles based on proverbs and quotations. Volumes 1 and 2 have been reprinted and are also available on http://store.fusac.fr

What were some of the challenges of creating this wonderful series?

Because we love to play with language the making of the puzzle was something we just had to be disciplined to sit down and do. The illustrations were another matter. Sometimes it was tough to figure out what the illustration should be, much less paint it. Then place the puzzle around the illustration in a way that kept it readable.

What was the reward?

Learning new expressions was the most satisfying part!

What are some comments you’ve had from readers?

Many who have seen the previous books are glad to have a new volume and wish we would get around to it more than every 4 years! Some of them find the games a bit hard, but there are varying levels and well idiomatic expressions are hard. They are pretty advanced language learning.

What is your favorite French expression?

C’est ___ de chez ____. You can fill in whatever adjective corresponds to the situation and reinforce it. C’est compliqué de chez compliqué. … C’est flexible de chez flexible.

Last year, the New Republic printed an article saying “Let’s Stop Pretending that French is an Important Language.” Why is it important to learn French, or any language for that matter?

It is in being able to communicate with other people and cultures that we’ll be able to see around divisions, understand why people do things certain ways and thus be more tolerant of them. When you can’t calmly ask someone why or how you tend to be closed to their ideas, needs and reasons. Being closed leads to being hostile, viewing them as “the others”. If we all spoke each others languages we’d have a better chance of peace or at least there would be more dialogue and fewer misunderstandings.

Plus learning a new language opens us to our own language and makes learning additional languages even easier. Don’t stop with just being bilingual!

What books are on your nightstand?

Right now I have Paul et Virginie de Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre written in 1788 on my nightstand. Next up will be the English translation of Au-revoir là-haut by Pierre Lemaitre. I read the French text when the book won the Prix Goncourt in 2013 and have been waiting for the English translation – it is amazing this process can take two years. I really enjoyed this story and learned a lot about the aftermath of World War I as France was trying to get back on its feet I am curious to see how it comes across in English. I have been wondering how they would translate the title, they chose The Great Swindle which gives a clue to the plot. I think this book is going to be on my Christmas giving list. Pertinent this year as a WWI story as well as a sort of thriller. Don’t be put off by the rather grisly battlefield scenes at the beginning, this is not a story about war, it is a story about what happens after the war.

What’s next?

A Speak Easy based on phrases from The Great Swindle. And we also have some other book projects waiting in the wings (en coulisse), but their subjects are hush, hush for now (top secret).

speak easy

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