Article Date: 8/1/2007

Hamburger Du Cheval
lessons learned

Hamburger Du Cheval

Communication is even tougher when you don't speak the same language.


"It really is difficult to communicate sometimes," e-mails Dr. Michael Molamphy, of Stockton, Calif. "In 1982 when I opened my first office, I had several patients who, during refraction, would identify a lens choice as 'dark.'"

"I was puzzled by this until I realized they meant the 'dark' lens was the one that gave the worst vision. Since then, I know I have to be careful in communicating with the numerous patients we see who have a limited grasp of English."

It's difficult enough to communicate speaking the same language. But as the world shrinks and we have more and more contact with people who speak different languages, it is becoming increasingly difficult. Dr. Molamphy's e-mail reminded me of past difficulties.

Ordering lunch

About 25 years ago, I attended the SILMO optical trade show in Paris. I quickly discovered that having had two years of high-school French did not exactly make me fluent in the language. Words that I remembered, such as "La crayon est sur la table" (The pencil is on the table), I found to be difficult to work into conversations.

My wife, Mary, and I on the first day went to a small café for lunch. Since she had not had the benefit of high-school French, I told her she could relax and let me take care of ordering. Unfortunately, I found that the only thing I could interpret on the menu was "Hamburger du Cheval." "Hamburger" was rather easy to translate, and I recalled that "cheval" was the French word for "cheese." So I told her that's what she should order if she wanted a cheeseburger.

I goofed

When the order came, there was a fried egg atop the burger rather than cheese, but she decided to eat it anyway. About the time she finished the last bite, I suddenly remembered that actually the French word for cheese is "fromage," and that "cheval" unfortunately, is the word for "horse." I finally summoned the courage to casually mention my goof to her, hoping that she might find it mildly amusing. She didn't!!!!!!

French friends later told us that "hamburger du cheval" is a beef hamburger, with an egg riding on top like a jockey. However, I think she still was convinced that I had caused her to consume a horseburger.

More than one definition

Even when someone speaks another language fluently, there can still be problems in understanding, due to not being familiar with common usage and idioms of the other language. I am on the Comite Scientifique de Lecture for the outstanding French optical journal, Points de Vue, which is published by Essilor in four languages. Recently I was asked to check the English translation of an article to make certain of proper word usage.

One part of the article referred to "primitive" health care, which immediately gave me the vision of a witch-doctor's dance and incantations. Then it became obvious that what the author meant was "primary" health care. Technically the translator was correct. One of the definitions of "primitive" is "primary," or "basic," or "initial."

Should be easy

"I don't know why you have so much trouble understanding French," a friend once told me. "It's obviously an easy language to learn. I noticed that even two-year-olds over there can speak it." OM


Optometric Management, Issue: August 2007