Monday, February 25, 2008

Found on the Web

This and this.

Nevertheless, while I will withhold judgment on these efforts at translation, this is my métier, after all, so I suppose I owe the world a bit of philosophical rumination on the translation of insults. The essence of the matter is of course to capture the right linguistic register, the precise tone of the invective. The literal meaning of the words is of no moment (and, indeed, one of the French words involved--a ubiquitous three-letter gem--is so "lexicalized" that its literal meaning is forgotten by the French commentator, who nevertheless tangles himself up in unrelated anatomical references). To be sure, it is hard to attach any precise register to the ubiquitous "pauvr' con," which has been in the public domain of quasi-polite company at least since the famous tube of Serge Gainsbourg. Hence its sting is rather drawn these days, I should say.

As for "casse-toi": well, English has pretty much seen the last of "scram." "F--- off" is too strong, "bugger off" too English for American ears, "buzz off" slightly passé. "Get lost" might do it, but I might be showing my age; I don't think my children would accept that translation. "Screw off," perhaps. "Sod off," apparently suggested by Collins' Dictionary, won't do at all in the U.S. A Tony Sopranoish "getouddaheah" would certainly be inappropriate. "Book it" has never seemed natural to me, though a complete dictionary would have to include it.

Definitely a tough one. "Buzz off, asshole" or "Get lost, jerk" probably bracket the target, though neither seems quite satisfactory. Clearly this is a matter that requires further contemplation. I'm sure that readers will have suggestions.

Judicial Confusion

The premier président of the Cour de Cassation, Vincent Lamanda, says that he will "reflect" on the question of security retention, as requested by President Sarkozy, but will not officially "review" the ruling of the Constitutional Council, since there is no authority for such review under Article 62 of the Constitution.* This only adds to the intellectual and juridical muddle of the decision, which I discussed yesterday. If I understand the implications of the Constitutional Council's decision correctly, some prisoners can indeed be adjudged too dangerous to release into the general population, but owing to non-retroactivity France will have to wait 15 years before this measure is applied, because the minimum penalty that must be judicially imposed before a prisoner can be considered for classification as "dangerous" is 15 years, and no one already sentenced can be considered because of the ban on ex post application. I'm not sure what President Lamanda's reflections can possibly yield other than that this decision is intellectually incoherent and humanly inexplicable, even if its legal basis is impeccable. Perhaps if this is pointed out forcefully enough, an appropriate constitutional amendment can be adopted to clarify the situation.

*Article 62
Une disposition déclarée inconstitutionnelle ne peut être promulguée ni mise en application.

Les décisions du Conseil constitutionnel ne sont susceptibles d'aucun recours. Elles s'imposent aux pouvoirs publics et à toutes les autorités administratives ou juridictionnelles.

De Gaulle the Incomparable

Nicolas Domenach reminds us how other presidents have handled insults:

Les plus anciens se rappelaient que, confrontés à des situations aussi difficiles, d'anciens présidents avaient observé un comportement plus majestueux. Tel Jacques Chirac, qui avait été traité « de connard » par un individu à la sortie de la messe à Bormes-les-Mimosas. « Enchanté, lui avait répondu l'ex-chef de l'Etat. Moi, c'est Jacques Chirac… » La réplique très Cyrano de Bergerac peut être comparée à celle du Général de Gaulle qui, à un vibrant « mort aux cons », avait opposé cette réponse très inspirée : « Vaste programme… ».

Ah, de Gaulle. There is a certain majesty of character that cannot be feigned, born as it is of superb contempt for the common run of humanity. It follows that Sarkozy's flaw is a consequence of what once constituted his strength: he puts himself on the same plane as everyone else.

Sister Republics

Roger Cohen, who but for Bill Kristol would probably be the top contender for the title of New York Times' least interesting columnist, opines that the French have become prudish while Americans have "grown up (or at least, that's the way the French might put it)" in their tolerance of high hanky-panky and executive misdemeanors. Schadenfreude hasn't enjoyed such a field day since the 2005 riots in the banlieues afforded American opiniators an irresistible opportunity to pay French opiniators back for their transformation of Katrina into a morality tale. "So that's where neoliberalism leads," said the latter, only to be answered by the former with gleeful variations on the theme of, "High taxes and a bloated welfare state give you social exclusion that ends in flames." Now we have moved on from the economic to the psychoanalytic, which leads Cohen to deliver himself of this gem of depth psychology:

As for Americans, the experience of eight years with a teetotaler president, consistent only in his disciplined mediocrity, has apparently filled them with a thirst for humanity above all.

Forgive me for not subscribing immediately to the Cohen thesis. Before running the regression, I'd like to control for such confounding variables as "divorce in the White House" and "precipitous remarriage to a bewitching vixen whose nude photos embellish the Internet." I suspect that the coefficient on the "thirst for humanity" variable might decrease considerably if these elementary precautions were observed.

But since Franco-American comparisons are in the air and always diverting, let me venture one of my own. It used to be said that the left and the right in the United States were tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, whereas an abyss divided the left and the right in France. But look at where we are today: on economic matters the French left and right have converged (if we confine our attention to the mainstream parties grouped to either side of center), with the only difference being that the left is reluctant to admit it. There is broad agreement on the need to reduce payroll taxes, liberalize and activate the labor market, reform pensions, control medical costs, increase retail competition, invest more in education and research, etc. Hence les frasques présidentielles assume a greater importance in differentiating the parties than might otherwise be the case. Meanwhile, in the United States, tweedle-dum has so far divorced itself from tweedle-dee--with permanent tax cuts, permanent warfare, permanent shrinkage of government coupled with permanent expansion of the national security state, and permanent denunciation of the sin but not the sinner (or, more accurately, of certain sins but not certain [other] sinners)--that we now have red states and blue states and live in Two Americas, divided not as John Edwards would have it by economics but rather by politics.

Yes, I know, the comparison is perhaps a little glib, but I'm setting aside my scholarly hat this morning and pretending to be a New York Times columnist--a job that apparently requires no more preparation than a strong cup of coffee.