Who shot the donkey?

A cautionary tale about the uses of language.



2/11/20232 min read

From the moment we installed ourselves in our French home, we turned on the radio, and France Musique , our station of choice, filled the air. I suppose it is a bit like the British Radio Three. Most of the time we hear old familiar favourites that we love. Other times we discover something new that then becomes part of our listening.

But what was that opera they kept playing excerpts from called "Donkey Shot?" For months it kept cropping up, and we remained utterly puzzled.

There are two programmes that we dislike. One presenter has a five minute slot every day, in which she introduces some innovative modern work, and its composer . Call us 'fuddie duddies' if you like, but in our minds, this is to be avoided. The other is a longer weekly Sunday slot called 'Forty Second Street' which broadcasts items from popular musicals, almost exclusively in American English. The banality of the lyrics makes us cringe, and we rush to seek alternative entertainment. But then the lyrics are most probably lost on the French, as they are lulled by the 'pleasant 'music. For us, the French equivalent occurs on Saturday mornings, when they broadcast hackneyed , often rather silly songs from 'way back when.' I can imagine many French sophisticates groan , but not us. Wishing to absorb French culture, we lap it up.

So who did shoot the donkey?

Well, the answer to this is... no one did, but I must confess that it took us a long time to find out. For months we puzzled over this strange opera that we had never heard of. Donkey Shot? Whatever is that ? The penny finally dropped when we saw that day's programme in print. The opera we had listened to so often was "Don Quixote," by Jules Massenet, or 'Don Quichotte' as it is known in French.

And the moral of my tale is...?

It is very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions . There is a huge "space between words," even when we speak the same language, and what is heard or understood may be completely different from what was intended.

I wonder just how many times in my life I have made false assumptions, or given rise to unintentional misunderstandings. Language is a brilliant thing, but it also has severe limitations.

And then there is the humour...

Our son makes his living as a translator from Italian to English, and we sometimes wonder whether he will eventually be replaced by artificial intelligence as it becomes more sophisticated. Clearly though, computer translation was not up to the mark when we enjoyed a meal at our local Vietnamese Restaurant with friends a few years ago. Among the items for our dégustation was " Fondue Thaillandais" . The menu was kindly translated into english for us . We were about to eat "melted inhabitants of Thailand."

cooked dish on gray bowl
cooked dish on gray bowl