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This question is on how a sentence from Kafka's Amerika (Der Verschollene or Le Disparu) was translated into French. It is from the chapter titled 'Weg Nach Ramses' ('Sur la route de Ramsès' or 'La Marche vers Ramsès').

Da sah er ein paar Schritte vor sich eine ältere, offenbar zum Hotelpersonal gehörige Frau, die lachend mit einem Gaste redete.

Into English it has been translated as follows by Willa and Edwin Muir:

Then a few steps in front of him he saw an elderly woman who clearly belonged to the hotel staff and was talking and laughing with a customer.

In a later translation, by Mark Harman, it goes:

Then a few steps in front of him he saw an older woman, who clearly belonged to the hotel staff, talking and laughing with a guest.

I have also two French translations. The one by Alexandre Vialatte from 1946 gives:

Il aperçut alors à quelques pas de lui une femme d’un certain âge qui faisait certainement partie du personnel et riait avec un client.

Bernard Lortholary's, from 1988, gives:

C’est alors qu’il vit à quelques pas de lui une femme plus très jeune qui faisait manifestement partie du personnel de l’hôtel et qui parlait en riant avec un client.

QUESTION

  1. How can d’un certain âge mean ältere or older or elderly (ignoring the differences between these themselves).

  2. How can plus très jeune mean ältere? Does it need a ne before plus?

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Other options like "vieille" or "agée" are way too direct, and not polite towards the elderly woman.

  1. "D'un certain âge" is an euphemism for "pretty old". Wordreference gives "of a certain age" as a translation for exactly that. It's a number we don't exactly know but it's not a small number.

  2. We don't need "ne" as there is no verb. If you say "une femme plus très jeune" you don't use it, but you can change the sentence a little to fit it in: "une femme qui n'était plus très jeune..." I think you can see how "not so young" can express being old in a polite way.

  • Thanks for directly answering the point about plus not needing ne. I guess plus is like personne in having a built-in negation that comes out in the right context. – Catomic Apr 3 '17 at 7:29
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The important factor behind these expressions is the social unacceptability of referring to an old person as just being old, and therefore the search for roundabout ways of expressing the age of the person. This is already present in the original — ältere instead of alte – as well as in the English translations — older and elderly instead of old.

D'un certain âge and plus très jeune are two such expressions which rely on conveying meaning by way of a sous-entendu, i.e. a second, real meaning "underlying" the literal meaning.

  • une femme d'un certain âge here means "a woman of some years": meaning her age is not known, but it's a somewhat non-negligible quantity. The underlying meaning is old, and is in the same register as English an older woman.

  • plus très jeune is a litote which aims to emphasize the age of the person by negating its opposite. To me, this actually sounds harsher than older, though still not as harsh as vieille femme.

Note that the literal translation "une femme plus vieille"* does not have the same meaning. It implies a comparison to another (specific) person, which isn't the case here.

Another term that could have been used here is une femme âgée (which means an elderly woman, not an aged woman).

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Un certain âge is a polite way of saying old, or at least not young. Certain here means a certain amount, as in not insignificant. It also adds, funny enough, a modicum of uncertainty. We're not sure how old exactly this person is, but not young anyway.

Plus très jeune is to be taken as a one-word expression, if you will, not a grammatical construct. You can and should say Cette personne n'est plus très jeune. But you'll say plus très jeune, pas très vieux, etc...

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