Monday, 18 February 2013

Barnes, Valerie "A Foreign Affair"

Barnes, Valerie "A Foreign Affair. A Passionate Life in Four Languages" - 2004

Often I read a book about a subject I know nothing about and it is always interesting to learn about new subjects. Very rarely do I read a book where so much sounds as familiar as in this one.

I have never lived in Switzerland and I am not a translator and/or interpreter but a large part of Valerie Barnes' story sounds like my own. The only difference, she is a couple of years older than me (actually, a whole generation, she is just a couple of years older than my mother) and at my time you wouldn't just get a telegram to show up in Geneva to start working for the United Nations a week later. At my time, you would have had to apply and certainly needed a university degree for any of the jobs she performed. The other difference, my husband is just wonderful, something the author unfortunately could not say of hers.

So, it was a pleasure to read the experience of someone else, someone who went abroad in her early twenties (the same as I did) to find her destiny.

Valerie Barnes tells us about her life as an ex-pat, the life of someone who juggles several languages at the same time, lets us look behind the scenes of an international organization, gives us a glimpse into an unhappy marriage to a philanderer, shows us all her international travels around the world, just a wonderful account of an interesting life.

If you are at all interested in any of these topics, you should read the book. It's wonderful.

Some of my favourite quotes:

When talking about her toddler son:
"His English was very polite, for he had heard no English swear-words from Mary-Ann or myself. Not so with French!"
I made that same experience with my children. In our case, the swear words would be the English ones.

Quotation from G.K. Chesterton: "A translation is like a woman: if she is beautiful she is not faithful, and if she is faithful she is not beautiful."
Such a true observation as anyone can testify who deals with several languages and/or translations.

"Sometimes English is so concise that in the other languages a whole sentence is needed to translate just two or three English words. This also means that English is an imprecise language; particularly when compared to French, Spanish and Russian ..."
Another phenomenon nobody ever thinks about unless they deal with translations. I also don't think you can compare languages, one language is always more imprecise in one field than another. It depends on the value people speaking that language have put on that specific field. Or at the culture that is associated with the language.

From the back cover:

"Walking along the drab, grey streets past bomb craters and piles of rubble, I daydreamed about a more romantic world where people spoke exotic languages, played music, sang and danced with passion." 'Trapped in the austerity of post-war London, 20-year-old Valerie Barnes yearned for the good times promised by the wartime songs. Then two chance meetings catapulted her into a high-flying career at the newly-formed United Nations in Geneva and the arms of a glamorous Frenchman ... Joining an elite breed of independent women who travelled the world in the 1950s and 1960s, Valerie lived a jet-setting life as an interpreter, working in exotic locales and rubbing shoulders with prime ministers and presidents. At the same time she was juggling a Swiss chalet home, three children and a love rat of a husband back in Geneva. But whatever Valerie did, she threw herself into it with zest. From dancing flamenco to being kidnapped in Cairo, being wooed by an African president or falling for a passionate Pole, Valerie's gift for storytelling makes A FOREIGN AFFAIR a lively, funny, utterly delightful memoir."


  1. Nice review, Marianne. I've plus one'd it for you. Cheers

  2. Thank you, Carole, I'm glad you like it. I'm not a big computer whiz so I have no idea how you plus on a blogpost. Does that mean you put it on Google+? That's the only place where I know this expression from.

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