As It Happens

'This book can save your life,' says translator of French Dictionary of Gestures

Chris Clarke says knowing the significance of gestures in different parts of the world can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

From the temples to the genitals to the toes, Chris Clarke says François Caradec's dictionary covers it all

Chris Clarke makes a 'post-interview gesture' after speaking with As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about his translation of François Caradec's Dictionary of Gestures. (Submitted by Chris Clarke)


Translation isn't an easy art at the best of times, but Chris Clarke truly had his work cut out for him when he set out to create an English version of François Caradec's Dictionary of Gestures

First published in 2005, it's a compendium of more than 850 movements involving everything from the lips to the eyelashes to the knees.

Not only are many of those gestures specific to a particular country or culture, they're also tricky to define — particularly given the fact that they transcend written language to begin with. 

As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay spoke with Chris Clarke about the project and about why knowing your gestures just might save your life. Here is part of their conversation. 

Mr. Clarke, describe this book for me. What exactly is a Dictionary of Gestures

What Caradec has put together is very much like any dictionary you'd come across. It has numbered entries in this case, each one accompanied by an illustration. 

He's decided to organize it — instead of thematically — by the part of the body that is used to make the gesture. So there are 37 chapters... and he starts with the head, the temples, the ear and the forehead, and works his way down to the groin, the genitals, the thighs, the knees, the legs and the feet.

That was the easiest way he could find to organize it because thematically you end up with one gesture that means a variety of different things in different places — or even in one place.

So what are some of the more unusual body parts one gestures from? 

The forehead, the eyebrows and the eyelashes — you wouldn't think we use these to communicate, but evidently we do.

The teeth. I don't know that I've intentionally gestured with my teeth before, but he does have a few entries under the teeth.

The elbow, the fingernails. 

The Dictionary of Gestures is divided into chapters, organized by body part. (MIT Press)

I'm trying to think of a gesture with my elbow. What's an elbow gesture? 

There's quite a variety actually.

To strike one's elbow against the table means avarice. To tap one's elbow with the palm of the opposite hand can have a) the same signification as the previous example, but b) in Germany or Austria can signify that the designated person is an imbecile. 

What are some of your personal favourite gestures, as defined by Caradec? 

To me there were two different kinds that were very interesting. The first was evidence of a gesture that was tied to something that we no longer use or no longer do, but [which] is still currently used in communication.

So, for instance, if we were doing this interview at a cafe and we arranged that you would call me later, as I got up I would make that little rotary dial [motion] with my finger ... but you could make that gesture to a 14-year-old who's never seen a rotary phone and they would know what you mean. 

An illustrated page from the interior of François Caradec's Dictionary of Gestures, translated into English by Chris Clarke. (MIT Press)

So now we've replaced that with putting a handset — kind of an old fashioned handset — up to our ear, right? "Call me." The old thumb at your ear and pinky at your mouth. 

Yeah, but you would never [pretend to] press cellphone buttons with your thumb or swipe your screen imaginably. The other ones that were very interesting were ones that have opposite or antithetical meanings in different places.

For instance... there's a gesture that, to us, means "halt" or "stop," with the palm face-out. And if you curve those fingers you end up with what [Caradec] describes as a Greek gesture called the "mountza," which came from public shamings where you would actually hurl refuse in the face of the person being shamed.

But with the flat palm out, [it's] also an Arab greeting. So we had American GIs who were telling people coming up to a check point, "Stop, stop, stop." And the people thought they were being greeted and waved on and so they just kept coming, and there were shootings. 

That's why one reviewer said, "This book can save your life," which is clearly a bit of hyperbole. But at the same time, you want to know the differences when you're travelling in certain cases. 

I guess the modern-day equivalent, if we live on our phones so much as we do — or on screens — is [that] we express our gestures ... though emojis. Do you see a relationship between gestures and emojis? 

I think so. We were discussing this at one point — a colleague and I — and I think I hit on the idea that whereas emojis are complementary to written language.

They're an add-on. They add sentiment to what you're saying in an email or a text message that otherwise can't convey irony or sarcasm.

And I think we use gestures in the same way, to add or to accentuate verbal language.

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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