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In Amélie, there's a scene at the beginning, where Amelie knocks on Mme Wallace's door and asks about a boy who lived in her flat in the fifties.

(Scénario français. Ma traduction.)

Mme Walace: Ah! La petite du 5e.Ce n'est pas souvent qu'on vous voit.
Ah, the petite from the fifth floor. It is not often that we see you.

Amélie: Excusez-moi. Un garçon habitait chez moi dans les années 50 ?
Excuse me. (Do you know) a boy (who) lived at my flat in the fifties?

Mme Walace: Venez boire un verre de porto. [“port” is a sweet wine]
Come drink a glass of port.

Amélie: Non, merci.
No, thanks.

Mme Walace: Si, venez. Fermez la porte. Oh, des gamins [kids]. J'en ai connu tellement ! Au début, c'est mignon et après, c'est les boules de neige, croyez-moi.
Yes, come. Close the door. Oh, boys. I have known many! At first, they are cute, and after, they are snowballs, believe me.

I wanted to know whether "c'est les boules de neige" is a common metaphor. I imagine it means that boys don't stay with a girl all that long (the way a snowball melts in your hand). But I am not sure I understand it correctly.

What makes this line of dialogue even more interesting is that the English subtitles change it substantially. On Netflix, the subtitles give us:

(English subtitles.)

Au début, c'est mignon et après, c'est les boules de neige, croyez-moi.
They're cute... until they discover snowballs and chestnuts.

This seems to give it a different meaning. In fact, I don't even know what they are getting at. The original French makes sense as a metaphor, but I don't understand the subtitles.

This leads me to ask two questions.

1. Do I understand the French correctly (Au début, c'est mignon et après, c'est les boules de neige, croyez-moi) as a metaphor about how quickly a man will abandon a woman?

2. Do the English subtitles capture this meaning, or do they not translate the figure of speech correctly?

I appreciate any feedback. You can check it out for yourself if you have a Netflix account in the States (audio -> French, subtitles -> English).

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I don't think boules de neige has to be taken as a metaphor here. Mme Walace is talking about kids when "they're cute", in her mind it qualifies the time before it gets into their heads to get into any sort of mischief. After that time kids (she's still talking about kids), start throwing snowballs. In other words Mme Walace could have said:

Au début, c'est mignon jusqu'à ce qu'ils découvrent les boules de neige... (/et après ils commencent à lancer des boules de neige).

I don't agree with your translation of et après, c'est les boules de neige. It should be "and then, there are snowballs / and then we get the snowballs". The question on why the English subtitles mention chestnuts is not really a question for French Language1, but I'll still tell you what I think.

Here "chestnut" designates the fruit of the horse-chesnut, i.e. the non edible variety, commonly known in Britain as "conkers".
In Britain (I have no experience of living in an English speaking country other than Britain so I can't tell if that applies to North America as well) there's a tradition of throwing horse-chestnuts (and playing conkers) in the autumn, just as there's a tradition of throwing snowballs in the winter. Adding chestnuts (or conkers as they're known in Britain) is telling something to an English speaking audience in the way of kids' mischievousness. In France, kids might occasionally throw conkers around when the time comes but never at such an organised scale as they do in Britain. To a Br. English audience at least, snowballs and conkers will go together as a sometimes dangerous activity mischievous kids will play.
I've dug out a ten-year old Guardian article that says: "A minority of schools have banned conkers and snowball-throwing amid concerns that injuries could expose schools to the threat of legal action."2


Boule de neige can be used figuratively in the phrase faire boule de neige but it is not relevant in this Amélie Poulain extract.

1 They might not leave it open on ELU either.
2 Actually the article is about ministers calling on risk-averse parents to stop "wrapping their children in cotton wool". Government's advice to parents: make sure your child plays conkers

  • Comme la connaissance de la culture-cible aide l'interprétation ! I wouldn't have known about the chestnuts myself, which tells you the status of that tradition on this side of the Atlantic (where chestnuts are for "roasting on open fires"). – Luke Sawczak Oct 3 '17 at 10:33
  • @LukeSawczak Mais ici en l’occurrence ce n'est pas la culture française, je fais référence à la culture britannique. Le français a deux mots séparés pour parler de chestnut : « châtaignes » (la variété comestible qu'on fait rôtir sur le feu) et « marron » pour la variété non comestible. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Oct 3 '17 at 11:05
  • @LukeSawczak mais attention, il existe aussi d'autres marrons, eux bien comestibles, qui sont les fruits de châtaigniers et dont on fait les marrons glacés et la crème de marron... – jlliagre Oct 3 '17 at 16:06
  • @Laure Indeed, you're making reference to British culture, and it's the translation into English that the OP asked about, was the connection in my mind! – Luke Sawczak Oct 3 '17 at 16:57
  • Ah, thanks! You make a cogent argument and indeed, I was probably wrong to think it was a metaphor. Your interpretation makes a lot more sense. – ktm5124 Oct 3 '17 at 17:00
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In French*, "boule de neige" (snowball) represents something that will have a kind of exponential effect, just like a snowball running down a hill and accumulating more and more snow as it goes down.

We often use the phrase "un effet boule de neige" which translates to "a snowball (exponential) effect".

(*) I mean "French of France". It may be different in other "French-speaking" countries

  • 1
    This is absolutely not relevant in this extract of Amélie Pouain. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Oct 4 '17 at 16:20
  • I think you are too categoric here. The effet boule de neige is indeed a possible explanation. The old lady has no reason to complain about receiving snow balls: we are in Paris so there are no snow ball fights on the street. But children getting more and more disturbing is indeed an effet boule de neige, which is a very very common expression. I'm in favor of this explanation. – yannis May 14 '18 at 21:41

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