A president’s use of a risqué verb causes a translation conundrum…

Macron told Le Parisien newspaper: “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc on va continuer de le faire, jusqu’au bout.” Though perhaps more so outside of France, where it provoked a great deal of heated debate – and clearly caused a huge headache for translators and journalists.

Macron told Le Parisien newspaper: “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc on va continuer de le faire, jusqu’au bout.” And caused a shitstorm in the truest sense of the word.

Though perhaps more so outside of France, where it provoked a great deal of heated debate – and clearly caused a huge headache for translators and journalists.

Some might argue that while “emmerder” is definitely not a word you would use in refined conversation, it is heard a great deal in everyday speech, in the sense of “annoy”, “getting on someone’s nerves”, “being a nuisance”, etc. But you would not expect to hear a president pronounce it who is known for his academic, top-down language and likes to quote from classical French literature. And he did not use it just once, but a couple more times in that interview.

If you look at the semantic field of the word, which is quite large, the fact that Macron chose this particular, vulgar expression rather than any of the more innocuous, less provocative synonyms does make you think there is more to it than a slip of the tongue. He could have so easily gone with agacer, assommer, barber, bassiner, contrarier, déranger, embêter, embarrasser, emmieller, emmouscailler, ennuyer, gêner, importuner. “Emmerder” on the other hand is blacklisted on French TV and not part of “officialspeak”.

The trouble with “emmerder” clearly is its etymology and its literal, down-to-earth meaning, which it cannot hide: “cover with excrements”. Quite.

And it is this obvious semantic derivation that shocked the foreign press, and must have had translators scratching their heads and consulting their dictionaries. “Annoy” or “hassle” were the choices some of them resorted to; the BBC and The Guardian were more courageous, opting for “take the piss”. Perhaps “annoy the shit out of them” would have been a good alternative?

The press in the German-speaking countries was particularly cautious and lame: “Ich habe große Lust, die Ungeimpften zu nerven” (get on their nerves). “Ärgern” (annoy) was seen too. But, let’s face it: these totally fail to capture the force of the president’s phrase. They have none of the bite of the original. Which surprises me somewhat since Germans are often said to be obsessed with faecal language, and not shy to use it (Merkel has used the word “shitstorm” on occasions). Why did they shrink away from “anscheißen”, or “ankacken” (after all, “cela m’emmerde” would typically be translated as “das scheißt mich an” – “that pisses me off”)? Another option might be “auf den Sack gehen” (which for most has a sexual connotation and would have been suitably obscene/vulgar).

It really boils down to a huge translator’s dilemma. After all, we are asked to transpose not just the information content of a message, but also the sentiment and the mood, and the intention. So why was it felt that a vulgar utterance needed dressing up into something much less offensive? If Macron committed a linguistic faux-pas, why would translators and journalists see it as their duty to cover this up? If Macron uses language that his own countryfolk believe is not fit for a president, why should other nations tone this down and make it into something totally harmless? Is this not a blatant mis-interpretation or suppression of the intended effect of the utterance? And therefore a transgression of a basic translation principle?

Journalist and politicians who have taken an interest in Macron’s choice of phrase are convinced that this was not an accidental profanity, but premeditated. An article in the Swiss daily “Tagesanzeiger” claims that he had tried out and tested the verb within his campaign team, who clearly must have approved it. And the man himself has been defending it. And he has not given out any sign of wanting to take it back, or apologize.

His language has been criticized as divisive and vulgar and has further fuelled the political tensions before the elections.

Some claim that Macron was making reference to a phrase by one of his predecessors, Georges Pompidou, who famously growled “Arrêtez d’emmerder les Français” (Stop pissing off the French!) in an outburst over the number of new laws being implemented in the country in 1966 (directed against Jacques Chirac). Macron was not wanting to “emmerder les Francais” – but direct his wrath at those who oppose vaccination (who are clearly in the opposite camp and will not be voting for him whatever register of language he uses).

One might want to contrast Macron with the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who in typical German conciliatory manner stated recently that the pandemic has not split the country, and more particularly that he is the chancellor of the unvaccinated, too! For the French president wanting to deny citizenship to a minority group, however much they might unnerve the rest of the population, is a very drastic threat indeed!

And it is that, quite clearly, that is causing the eruption of rage in France, not the profane word the foreign press jumped on. Macron accused the unvaccinated of being irresponsible and therefore no longer French citizens and promised to make their lives inconvenient/unbearable. He was out to shock the nation and tap into the increasing public anger against the antivaccinationists.

John Lichfield, former foreign editor of the Independent, points out that Macron’s “gros mot” can also be seen in line with “merde”, which was the reply of a French general at the British suggestion that he should surrender at Waterloo in 1815. Against this historical backdrop, it does seem quite clear that the choice of term was premeditated, and not an accident. If Macron had wanted to be less provocative, he would have chosen “embêter”. In which case “annoy” (“ärgern”) or “bother” or “unnerve” (“nerven”) would have been perfectly adequate translations. As to “emmerder” the verdict for the most appropriate translation is still out. Suggestions?

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