Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Arche de Zoé Upends Law and Language

The transfer of the humanitarian buccaneers who manned Zoé's Ark until it ran aground in Chad has caused a bit of a ruckus in France, where the specialized term transfèrement was used to describe the procedure. The word is perfectly correct and found in all dictionaries, though it was unknown to me before this affair. Apparently it was also unknown to many native speakers of French, as this article and this one make clear. The more usual term for a transfer is of course transfert, which, as Le Monde's proofreaders note, is also the French word for transference, in the Freudian sense, which in English is differentiated from "transfer." In German "transference" is die Überträgung, which is indeed "transfer" in the ordinary sense, so maybe this is another of those instances where Strachey betrayed Freud by overrefining his language. This discussion may be of more interest to students of translation than of politics, and of course "translation" (Übersetzung, traduction) is but another sense of "transfer."

The more difficult matter in the Arche de Zoé affair is how to translate the Chadian punishment, 8 years at hard labor, into French penal law, which no longer recognizes such a penalty. The translation is complicated by the fact that the French appreciation of the perpetrators' crimes is no doubt different from the Chadian view. I suspect that most Frenchmen regard the crew as guilty of bungling and callousness rather than malevolence. The roles of the various participants seem to have been more varied than the summary judgment of the Chadian court allowed, and now that they are back on French soil, the Zoénauts are turning on one another, as was only to be expected. Quite a mess--and since the liberty of several people is involved, and relations with Chad must be considered, the problem of translation is more delicate than that which ordinary translators face. I'm glad this job is someone else's responsibility.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hasn't France pretty much shot its credibility re: repatriation of prisoners with the Rainbow Warrior thing in any case?

Unknown said...

The liberated officers in the Rainbow Warrior case were French secret agents who blew up the ship on orders of Charles Hernu, minister of defense, who was forced to resign for his role in the affair. This is an entirely different matter, because the Zoénauts were not acting on orders of the French government and were allegedly warned not to proceed.

lisa said...

The role of the media, and the way that various parties have tried to use it to their advantage, has been fascinating in this issue - e.g. the charity's initial emotive pleas to French families via the Internet and radio, then after their arrest the Chadian media claiming that the charity members were trafficking the children for paedophiles and organ donors, followed by Zoe's Ark members staging a hunger strike to bring attention to their cause...

Although I do not doubt their humanitarian concern, it does bother me that Breteau & Co didn't think about the long-term effects, emotional trauma and psychological adjustment that their "mission" would have on the children they were trying to rescue.

What do you think, Arthur? Are they idealists or criminals? Both or neither?

Unknown said...

Yes, the role of the media is fascinating, as it was in the Enfants de Don Quichotte affair about which I also wrote yesterday.

Idealists or criminals? As I said, I suspect that the mix of motives differs from individual to individual. The doctor seems to have been there for purely humanitarian reasons. Breteau I suspect was initially moved by humanitarian concerns, but it seems clear that at some point he learned that most of the children were not from Darfur or perhaps had no intention of filling his quota with Darfur refugees. Did he stand to gain financially if he came back with a planeload of children for adoption? Certainly the adopting families and some of the Chadian intermediaries feel that he duped them.

The exact roles of the others are even more murky. All seem to have been willing to misrepresent the nature of their mission in the name of some higher cause, but what exactly did they think they were doing? Kidnapping or rescuing? I don't know. And did rescue from genocide perhaps shade over into "rescue from poverty" as a justification for kidnapping to alleviate the white man's burden?

Anonymous said...

Oh, quite - it's not the same situation. But they still lost credibility on the subject through it, so Chad could quite reasonably expect something similar to happen now (after appropriate make-believe agonising). That's a little self-fulfilling too, since it means there's really no cost to France in doing it. Releasing actual murderers just has to be worse than attempted kidnappers, and this time would be much less mendacious.