Monday, 7 February 2005

Multilingual Birdcage


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Celebrating LGBT History Month

A friend of mine who works for the Welsh government sent me this recently:
"this was on one of the notice boards today....

is there a native French speaker out there who can answer this question for me please.

La Cage Aux Folles (the film) is known in English as The Birdcage, but (as best as I can work out) the literal translation is more like 'the cage of fools'. Is this an idiom for a birdcage? or is it a euphemism for an asylum or something? or is it just an unknown phase invented for the film title?

And what is the real French word for birdcage? I've found variously 'voliere' and 'panier', what (if anything) is the difference in meaning of the two?

And what about the word 'gonze' is that a bird of the feathered variety? or is it something to do with another meaning of 'bird'?
"

An interesting request to find on government notice board I thought. Here is my reply:
La Cage aux Folles, directed by Edouard Molinaro in 1978, is credited in the Celluloid Closet (also a film) with having been the "first gay box office smash hit". I personally find it of bad taste and on the verge of being homophobic... After all it was perpatuating the cliches of the time. It just makes me cringe.

The literal translation of "cage aux folles" is "cage for madwomen". In Addition to meaning a mad woman, "folle" is also a slightly pejorative, although not nasty, word for an effeminate man. The English equivalent would be a "queen". Like other insults the word has been re-owned by the gay community who uses it fairly freely to qualify themselves. "Cage aux folles" is not an idiomatic expression but something created, as far as I am aware, specifically for the play (later film). It might be some old fashion (gay) slang (some sort of French polari?) or perhaps the name of an actual place in the 1970's but I am not aware of it.

The translation for birdcage would be "cage à oiseau" or simply "cage". "Volière" implies something bigger and would be translated by "aviary", I think. A "panier" is in fact a basket and has no relevance in this instance.

"Gonze" is a not that often used shorter version of "gonzesse". This is a slang word designating a woman, "bird" would indeed be a good translation of it. Not relation with the feathered world in French however.


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