'Unsubmissive' France...and other awkward political translations
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There’s an ongoing dialogue in the FRANCE 24 newsroom on the challenge of translating French presidential hopefuls’ slogans and party names into the “language of Shakespeare.” As the election approaches, we take a closer look at the trickiest cases.
In order of awkwardness, we’ll start with the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-leftist who has been shaking things up in the final days before the first round of the presidential election on April 23.
While the name of Mélenchon’s umbrella movement, “La France Insoumise” rolls off the tongue in la langue de Molière, English-language media continue to grapple with a lyrical – if not literal –equivalent.
On yesterday’s “Campaign Beat”, FRANCE 24’s own Florence Villeminot went with the literal translation “Unsubmissive France”, which Wikipedia has adopted as well. It all made this copy editor groan a bit, what with its not-so-subtle S&M overtones.
One of our veteran journalists thought that “indomitable”, impossible to subdue or defeat, best captured the spirit of “insoumise,” and our usage of “Indomitable France” has crept into our own coverage. This literary departure was backed up by another FRANCE 24 writer, who pointed out that Mélenchon’s chosen symbol, the Greek letter “phi”, further supported the choice of “indomitable.”
At a recent campaign rally, Mélenchon himself explained why he had chosen the symbol of the golden ratio: “Phi stands for philosophy, the love of wisdom. That’s a pretty good manifesto.”
In its coverage of the far-left movement, Politico has come up with “France Untamed”, which seems more appropriate for an eau de parfum than a political campaign. A quick internet search proves this hunch to be correct. And yes, Victoria’s Secret “France Untamed” body spray is still available in Turkey.
Never to be outbowed, The New York Times’ resident France expert Roger Cohen translated Mélenchon’s movement in that vein, as “France Unbowed”, while the Times itself has separately referred to it as “Rebellious France.”
Onward, Forward or On Our Way?
Then there’s centrist Emmanuel Macron, with his own PR machine that wisely decided to translate his “En Marche” movement into English itself, going with the forceful “Onward!”, although some English-language media didn’t seem to get the memo, translating the movement’s name alternatively as “Forward" or “On Our Way”.
Depending on the context, when something like a machine is “en marche” in the French language, it signifies that said machinery is working as it should, a connotation not likely lost on Macron, one of the rare French politicians who dares to speak English in public.
In early February, Macron himself released a Twitter video reaching out to American researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers concerned about their future under President Trump, “who has decided to jeopardize your budget and your initiatives as he’s extremely sceptical about climate change.”
The Onward! candidate assured potentially disgruntled American scientists: “Here, you are welcome...I have no doubt about climate change and how important it is.” Macron urged those working on climate change to “join European and French researchers and come to work on climate change here.”
The English messaging was in synch with the candidate’s motto – with only one hitch – his rather unfortunate pronunciation of “engineers”, which sounds suspiciously like another word he probably didn’t intend to reference right here, right now. In the newsroom we've been referring to this video as Macron's "Vagina monologue."
‘Thievery for France’
The race’s other leading candidates, Les Républicains’ scandal-plagued conservative François Fillon, the Socialists’ Benoît Hamon, and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen haven’t struggled as much in translation as they have to stay on message.
Fillon’s primary slogan: “Le courage de la verité” or “The Courage of Truth”, started to ring a bit false once the news of alleged fake jobs, in which his wife and children may have been paid for work they never performed, broke in late January.
Quietly changed to “Une volonté pour la France”, “Willpower for France,” the new slogan can be seen on street posters, which vandals and political activists have delighted in defacing so that they read, “Un vol pour la France”: “Theft for France.”
The extreme right’s Marine Le Pen has kept it simple with “Au Nom du Peuple !”, “In the Name of the People!” taking a cue from the Macron campaign by using that funky exclamation mark.
Socialist Hamon, meanwhile, has gone with a message that not only warms the heart, but manages to make it beat again: “Faire battre le Cœur de la France”, “Make France's Heart Beat Again [even though "again" does not appear in the French original, it feels necessary in the English version].
It all brings back fond memories of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who confounded the English-language press back in 2012, after a man attending the annual Salon d’Agriculture refused to shake the then-president’s hand, to which Sarkozy replied, “Casse-toi, pauv’ con !”
There’s no soft way to translate the conservative politician’s phrasing: “Get lost, you a**hole.”
But as this story went to press, another debate was launched in the newsroom: "No, it's closer to 'jack**s!' "The original meaning is actually 'c**t', but that seems a bit harsh." "Ok, how about dumb a*s?"
As we have seen, this translation business is all very subjective. It might even be “beaucoup trop” (very too much) to take on at the moment.
Still having trouble deciding for whom to cast your vote? Take the FRANCE 24/Vox Pop Labs quiz on which French presidential candidate is the best match for you.
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