By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & and Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
“Garçon!” One hears American tourists, thinking themselves to be suave, calling out the word to summon a waiter in European restaurants.
Once upon a time, the waiter in a European public house probably was a garçon. A boy who was member of the proprietor’s family, or the child of a friend, or some other local boy who had an “in” with the proprietor.
Nowadays, in our troubled economic times, in country inns, the waiter is likely to be the proprietor who is trying to cut costs so as to keep his establishment in the black by waiting tables himself. To call him a “boy” is nothing less than insulting.
In an urban restaurant, the waiter is probably an hourly employee who might well be working double shifts to support his immigrant family. He will not appreciate being called a “boy” any more than the proprietor of a country restaurant would be.
In Europe, the “N Word” doesn’t have anything like the impact it has in the USA. But “garcon” means “boy” and to use the word to call a waiter in modern-day Europe is nearly the equivalent of calling a black waiter in the USA using the “N Word.”
You can look up the word “garcon” in traditional, well-established paper translating dictionaries. You can look it up in the latest electronic translation apps. Both sources will define “garcon” as a boy, a young male; neither definition can provide you with the cultural context that might prevent you from insulting the proprietor of a country inn or the employee of an urban restaurant.
Compilers of dictionaries and translation aps do the best they can but neither can provide the context that a human translator can achieve. Whatever the context—be it calling a waiter in a European restaurant a “boy” or filing an international insurance claim that spuriously demands the race of the claimant—the N Word and the proper use of the word garçon can only be correctly interpreted, expressed, understood and translated by a human being who can put the word into its proper context.
I am expert in the English language. I am not a translator. But I will never denigrate myself by using the N Word, and I will never denigrate anyone else by calling a hard-working restaurateur or day-laborer using the “G” word.
The words we use matter in a cultural, intellectual and political context. They also matter in a human context. Before any of you suave Americans again call out the word “garcon” in an offhand manner in a restaurant in a foreign land, you might want to consider just what your use of the word “boy” might mean to the person to whom you address the term. If you have trouble figuring it out, contact Adriana.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as multi-cultural. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.