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I am translating some old letters written in the 1800s by someone who was possibly not a native French speaker. Sadly, I do not have access to the letters themselves, only to a transcript made by people who are most definitely not native French speakers, and generally don’t seem to know much, if anything, about French at all.

Most of the time, a bit of guesswork works fine for figuring out what the original presumably said, and usually that ends up making good enough sense that I can at least translate it with a fair amount of confidence.

There’s one bit in one letter, though, that I can simply make neither head nor tail of. The letter is describing a ball held in connection with the christening of an infant—the writer’s nephew—in quite a fancy house in India. The infant was severely ill, and people didn’t really feel much like dancing and throwing a ball, since they feared the child might die; but the child’s father (who was governor) insisted on giving the ball as part of his sociopolitical duties.

After describing how she (the aunt who wrote the letter) had staid with the child as much as she could and felt disgusted with having to go down and play graceful hostess at the ball knowing that her nephew was hovering between life and death upstairs, she finishes the letter in this way—the sentence I can’t figure out is the very last bit, in bold:

Notre société auraitsurement préféré n’être point ici en de pareil circonstances, & nous le proposâmes au frère [= the governor, ed.]; mais il n’en avait par envie, disant que ses affaires domestiques, ne devaient pas être confindus d’avec ceux de son devoir. J ene pus m’empêcher de pleurer devant les étrangers qui venaient d’avoir un audience enhaut, car leurs rèponses n’étaient qu’inquittantes; le petit ayant en des bandages – Omslag Fomentativ – trampées dans du vin & une décoction de médicine; ce bandâges furent renouvellées tous le 5 minutes. En même tems que je craignais pour sa vie, je me disais que notre baptême resemblait en quelques sortes à celu du « Skrædder-Barsel, hvor man ogsaa gjorde Ende paa Barnet ». On ne dansa qu’une danse après le souper, & à une heure on s’était plus ressemblant à une Zero.

Omslag means ‘poultice’; I’m not sure if Fomentativ is supposed to be Danish (if so, it’s in the wrong place, since adjectives precede the nouns they qualify in Danish) or French (if so, it’s misspelt, and a bit odd). Skrædder-Barsel, hvor man ogsaa gjorde Ende paa Barnet is a variation on an old Danish saying that means ‘a tailor’s christening, where the child too was eaten’, referring to the fact that christening feasts were often lavish, extravagant events that could easily impoverish an entire family from the lower classes.

Note: This is an exact rendition of the text I have. I presume that obvious mistakes like « j ene » instead of « je ne » are errors on the part of the transcriber; but even so, assuming the letter is more or less accurately transcribed, it is clear that the writer’s orthography was quite irregular.

It seems like the last sentence is supposed to say something like, “at one in the morning we retired/closed the ball, looking/feeling horrible/like nothing at all”, but grammatically, it seems completely nonsensical as it stands—and even semantically, I can’t make much sense of it.

I’ve tried looking through all the definitions of ressembler (and ressemblant), but nothing seems to fit this; no idioms involving a zéro that I could find.

Is it possible for a native French speaker (or just someone with a better feel for the French language than mine) to guess what was meant here?

Please feel free to assume both typos and mistranscriptions on the part of the transcriber, and shoddy spelling and grammar in the original writer. The letter in general has shown multiple instances of both.

  • It's strangely said, I didn't find a real sens about it with your transcriptions/typo and possibly direct fixes on it, bu "une-zéro", could it be "One-zero", meaning 1:00 (that's how they say the hours in Airport/TrainStation to avoid long with "oc'lock", "past ten", etc, no)? But it still missing the relation with the start of the sentence. Could be. Also, it could be also meant that the they were really exhausted, using "zéro" opposed to "héros". – Larme Jan 18 '17 at 12:21
  • @Larme Well, at least I’m glad to know it’s not just me missing something obvious. I hadn’t thought of the possibility of une zéro referring to time (I didn’t realise you could say it like that), but that does perhaps not seem entirely unlikely. I have a sneaking suspicion that the letter itself doesn’t actually say s’était, but something completely different… I just can’t think of anything that would fit. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 18 '17 at 12:42
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    @Tunedéroberas. No, definitely not Indian. She is either of a purely French family, living in a Danish colony in India, or Danish-French. She is the sister of the governor of the colony, but I can't figure out if the family is actually French or not. She'd only lived in India for a couple of years, if even that. The preceding sentence is half French half Danish (quoting an old Danish proverb in a French sentence), so she knew both. I can give a few of the other sentences tomorrow when I have access to the files again. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 18 '17 at 19:34
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    @Tunedéroberas. You can't deduce anything from the capitalisation and lack of diacritics—both are erratic and weird throughout the letter. There's even one part where she spells the same word three different ways in one single sentence. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 18 '17 at 20:47
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    @Tunedéroberas. I’ve added the preceding sentences to give more context (and more of a feel for her writing style). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 19 '17 at 9:39
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After quite a long wait, I have just received a picture of the original letter from the author of the article it is quoted in.

No wonder it didn’t make any sense—half a sentence had been left out! There are two était’s almost right above each other, at the same place on the line, and the transcriber had simply skipped the whole line between them.

This is what the letter turned out to actually say:

… & à une heure on s’était retiré, à l’exception de la Stricker qui resta à garder le Héro qui était plus ressemblant à un Zéro.

This, obviously, makes an awful lot more sense. It even makes it clear what the ‘zero’ is all about: it’s supposed to rhyme with ‘hero’!

Thanks to all for their creative thinking and attempts to make sense of what eventually turned out to be a phantom phrase.

  • Nice to finally have an answer to this. Note that in French, héros always ends with a s. And using zéro instead of héros is a very common pun (even with super-zéro). – Destal Feb 23 '17 at 13:40
  • @SimonDéchamps You and I know that, but she clearly didn't. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '17 at 13:41
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It sounds like it might mean "We danced only one dance after dinner, and at such a time [e.g., so late] that it was more like zero."

My thinking is that "on" might actually be "où". It might be "où c'était plus ressemblant à un zéro," although a native French-speaker would be unlikely to use that wording.

  • +1 for pursuing the possibility (as suggested by the OP in comment #2 under the question) that "S'était was probably originally written as something else. In fact, it had crossed my mind that perhaps it could have originally been "N'était" as part of a clumsy, overly literal way of saying "... we were no longer looking like/resembling a ..." (i.e., "on n'était plus ressemblant à une ...") That still wouldn't explain what the Aunt meant by "Zero," although it could open the possibility that she was saying that the situation actually started to improve at 1:00. cc: @JanusBahsJacquet – Papa Poule Feb 19 '17 at 14:38
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I guess the intent was:

On ne ressemblait plus à rien.

Which is a common way to say:

We looked terrible.

Literally it means "we looked like nothing", with the idea that we looked so terrible it it impossible to find something to compare with. Here that could be illustrating the fact the people are very tired and worried.

Anyway it is pretty difficult to be sure about that. It could also simply be nonsense.

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My best guess is that this "Zero" means either looking/feeling horrible, like "nothing at all", or that the number of guests in the ball had dropped down to zero.

I am not aware of any expression with the word "zéro" in French that would help here.

What was the native language of the writer? This might give clues, by looking at how "zero" could be interpreted in their language.

  • I don’t know for sure. I assume she was likely bilingual in Danish and French, but I’m just guessing—and there is nothing in it that makes sense in Danish either. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 19 '17 at 15:33
  • I would have said Swedish: "Omslag" is a swedish word (?) but "Skrædder-Barsel, hvor man ogsaa gjorde Ende paa Barnet" is recognized by google translate as Danish... – Frank Jan 19 '17 at 15:34
  • My kids use expressions with "zero" in French to mean "nothing", if that is another hint. – Frank Jan 19 '17 at 15:36
  • It’s Swedish as well, but it’s also Danish, and “Skrædder-Barsel, hvor man ogsaa gjorde Ende paa Barnet” is uniquely (orthographically archaic) Danish, not Swedish (it would be “Skrædderbarsel, hvor man også gjorde ende på barnet” in current Danish, and something like “Skräddarebarsel, där man också avdagatar barnet” in current Swedish). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 19 '17 at 15:39

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