The perils of translating Brussels street names


Some knowledge of our national languages Dutch and French is a plus for this article. How the perils of translating street names in bilingual Brussels can lead to results that are sometimes exasperating, usually amusing but always surprising.  

Concise linguistic history of Brussels through the ages   

For a proper understanding, we must briefly review the Belgian capital linguistically. After the foundation of Brussels in the late 10th century, Flemish was the dominant vernacular for centuries. In the15th century, the Burgundians established their court in Brussels. They rivalled the French court in Paris in terms of class, style and... language. A small administrative and social elite in our region switched to French while the vast majority of the population continued to speak Flemish. Flemish flourished in the 16th century, as did other European vernacular languages. A standard Dutch language had quietly developed even before the Southern and Northern Netherlands separated in 1648. Under Spanish and Austrian rule from the 16th, through the 17th and into the late 18th centuries, the situation looked something like this: Flemish was the language of the common people and of the lower administrations, French that of higher administrations, science, culture and increasingly that of the bourgeoisie, and finally Latin held up well in education and religion. Around 1800, French powers made French the only language compulsory for education, administration, the legal system, the military and the press. Street names had to have a French translation but Flemish was tolerated on the signs.  
A handful of gems from the rich harvest of translation antics on the streets of Brussels 

If you wish to admire the Gothic splendour of the Brussels Town Hall, you must visit the 'Grote Markt' (NL) or 'la Grand-Place' (FR). But why? A square is not quite the same as a market, is it? No, but with the French naming, the 'Grand-Place' had already lost its historical market function and, moreover, its political significance came to the fore. That's why. To see the back of the Town Hall, you must go to 'Vruntstraat' (NL). In Spanish times, this was the location of the 'vrunte', a Middle Dutch word for 'prison'. The Spanish occupier mistakenly read that as 'vriend' (friend) and translated it as 'amigo'. Those Spaniards! Later, this was simply adopted as 'rue de l'Amigo' (FR). By the way, in Brussels people still refer to 'den amigo' when they mean the 'clink'. And how about 'Vlaamse Steenweg' (NL), the link between the heart of Brussels and Ghent, which the French translated not as 'chaussée de Flandre' but simply as 'rue de Flandre' (FR)? But you can't really call it wrong because, in one good leap, you can get from one pavement to the other. 

'Bruidstraat' (NL)/'rue de la Fiancée' (FR) is another case of mistaken identity. The 'brui' from Brussels, an old Flemish word for 'waste', used to be brought here, to the banks of the vaulted Zenne. The French thought the word resembled the word 'bruid' (bride) so they conveniently turned it into 'rue de la Fiancée'. And that, in turn, was mistranslated as 'Bruidstraat' (NL)! Goods for the offices with a front entrance on the parallel 'Emile Jacqmainlaan' are now mainly brought here. You won't find much more than possibly a jilted bride there... 

Finally, two lovely sounding street names: who wouldn't want to grow up or spend their latter years, respectively, in the 'Kindvriendelijk Huisstraat' (NL)/'rue de la Cité Joyeuse' (FR) and, just further along, the 'Gelukkige Grijsheidstraat' (NL)/'rue de la Vieillesse Heureuse' (FR), both in the Brussels commune of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean? 

And you can figure out for yourself what is going on with 'Wildewoudstraat' (NL)/'rue du Bois Sauvage' (FR) - 'Stormstraat' (NL)/'rue d'Assaut' (FR) - 'Kleerkoperstraat' (NL)/'rue des Fripiers' (FR) - 'het Vossenplein' (NL)/'la place du Jeu de Balle' (F) - 'Wollendriestorenstraat' (NL)/'rue de la Grosse Tour' (FR) and so many others. 'Onderrichtsstraat' aka 'Onderwijsstraat' (NL)/'rue de l’Enseignement' (FR) and 'Welgelegenstraat' aka 'Schoon-Zichtstraat' (NL)/'rue du Beau(-)Site' (FR) already speak for themselves…

Maybe someday we'll come back to this. In any case, have fun searching.