I saw the above poster today and naturally my eye was drawn to that word: animations.
It needs to be said that this poster probably wasn’t written by a native English speaker, and by animations they probably didn’t mean cartoons, which is what most English speakers would take it to mean. So with that in mind: what do you think animations means here?
If you’re not sure, then don’t worry, because neither am I. Not that that I’m criticising the creator of the poster by the way. Their use of the word is another interesting example of the difficulties of translation, and I imagine that plenty of non-native speakers had no trouble understanding what the word meant.
I first came across how confusing the verb to animate and its related forms can be a few years ago. I was looking over a French speaker’s CV, and noticed that one of his past roles was as an animator.
Oh! I said. You were an animator! Cool! Did you work on TV? Do you still do it sometimes?
Uh, no, he answered. I worked with a charity.
Needless to say, this confused me, but luckily my teaching experience helped me to realise immediatlely that he obviously meant something different from a cartoon maker. I got him to explain what the role entailed so I could figure out what English word would be the best fit:
Well, it involved a lot of different things really. It was a charity for young people, and I would organise activities, or sometimes cook meals, or take them on trips. Lots of things.
Ah, OK, I said. Well in English when we say animator we generally mean someone who makes cartoons, so in this case we’d say… well, cook, but cooking wasn’t your main activity, so, no… well, group leader, maybe? No, not really… Erm…
You can see the bind I was in. What would you call that in English? In the end, I came up with something generic. I can’t remember what exactly, something like charity representative or activity coördinator. But I continued to see animateur/animatrice and animation everywhere when I subsequently lived in Belgium, and I could never come up with simple English equivalents.
Of course there are plenty of words in other languages that don’t translate easily into English, and they’re pretty easy to get around, usually just by using a longer expression. But something about this concept of animation bugged me. Maybe this is more than just a word that’s not easily translated. Maybe this is an entire concept that just doesn’t exist in the English-speaking world because we don’t have a term for it!
When I think about what French speakers mean when they say they’re an animatrice, I get what they mean. The basic idea is that of animating people in the sense of getting them to act. Arranging activities for them, organising them, hosting them etc. But you see already how tricky it gets to really translate the concept into English. Organising and hosting people are quite different things, so which term do I use?
OK, if someone described their role to me and it was clearly that of a host (e.g. of a TV programme) I’d say OK, in English you’re a host. Or a presenter. But sometimes, like in the case of the chap whose CV I’d checked, people described themselves as animators, and they had quite general roles which were quite hard to pin down in English. Which made me think: is this an entire kind of job that we simply don’t have in English, just because we don’t use the word animator in that way?
Not that our worlds are so completely different. We certainly have roles that could be described as animator, but which are more specific than that, and which we therefore have more specific terms for. But then think about any place you’ve worked for. Was there someone there who had a specific role and title, but ending up doing lots of different jobs – organising things, greeting guests and so on – simply because they were capable and competent? Maybe in another country they’d be an animateur, but in English that’s not really possible. So what though? Is their title important, if they’re still doing useful work?
Perhaps not, but then if they’ve got a specific role, and a specific title, then they’ve probably got specific tasks too. So all this… animateur stuff might be surplus to their normal workload. But are they getting probably recognised and rewarded for it? Depends where they work I suppose, but you can be sure that if they had a title like animator, then they’d be more likely not to be overworked and have their work properly recognised and recompensed.
Different languages and different words can certainly make us see the world in different ways, but it’s interesting to consider that these differences in perspective could have important practical effects in how the world is organised.
Maybe the cultural gap isn’t as great as I imagine it could be, but there’s certainly a difference in perspective at play. This is also the case for other languages too by the way. Italian is similar: un animatore can be a cartoonist, but also a children’s entertainer or an activity leader. And I’m willing to bet it’s similar in Spanish and Portuguese (the latter of which I think is the source of animations in the poster).
Speaking of which, now what do we think the poster writer meant by animations? Possibly performances, which would be logical. Possibly just general liveliness, because that’s what you want from a dance class. But I suspect it could also simply mean activities. Which just sounds weird in English, doesn’t it?
But then, why not? I mean, it’s not actually strange to have activities at dance classes in a bar, is it? Maybe they’re activities involved in teaching one how to dance. Or maybe they’re just fun activities like party games or, I don’t know, arts and crafts. The point is, logically it’s not strange to have activites at such an event, but it’s very weird to say there are going to be activities in English, because like animations, we don’t use the word in this particularl way, to refer to specific activities. Even if they are activities.
But then if I think about me speaking French, I’d probably say activités without batting an eyelid, not just because it’s a direct translation (though it is), but because I’m not fully inducted into the logic of French yet, so even if it were weird to say activités, I might not be aware of that. Likewise, an English learner might not know that saying animations or activities (in certain contexts) is strange. Because learning a language isn’t just a matter of learning the meaning of words, and recognising grammatical patterns. It requires to consider another logic, another way of seeing the world. Which is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of learning a language for me!
But it does require you to use your imagination, step out of your comfort zone, put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and possibly one or two other clichés. Which isn’t easy for anyone, but since when has anything worthwhile been easy?
P.S. You might now be thinking, Why don’t you go to the class and find out if there are fun activities there!? Nice try, but I’m sorry: I don’t dance!