Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lost in translation

Apparently, the Confédération Générale du Travail no longer looks with favor on the word travailleur. The union now favors, not ouvrier, but salarié to describe the status of its members. This is bizarre in any number of ways, as the linked article points out. But the poor translator must now be on his guard: if travailleur becomes pejorative, can we translate salarié as "wage-earner," even though this has no especially pejorative connotation in English (though of course it's generally considered higher-status to receive a salary, which is not the same thing as un salaire (this is often a faux-ami, since English distinguishes between salary and wage: rémunération, appointements, émoluments might be better)? It rather grates on the ear in English. Economists distinguish between "hourly" workers (salariés) and "salaried" workers (whose pay is independent of the number of hours worked, and who are not exactly the same as cadres). Of course, in the United States, we have no "working class": everyone considers himself "middle class," so I suppose we have neither travailleurs, ouvriers, nor salariés but only bourgeois earning over $1m a year, which explains the otherwise puzzling support for tax cuts for the rich.

Perhaps the demise of travailleur began when il fallait travailler plus pour gagner plus. This was certainly a change from abolir le salariat. But the euphemisation of work has been going on for some time, at least since Auchan declared its clerks to be techniciens de surface. On the other hand, certain formerly despised professions sought to raise their status by claiming the privilege of labor: sex workers, intellectual workers. Or as non-commissioned officers used to tell me in the army when I mistakenly addressed one as "Sir," "Don't call me 'sir,' I work for a living." Work can be a badge of dignity and pride, except, it seems, chez la CGT.


brent said...

Perhaps the CGT could take a lesson from Walmart and refer to the workers-especially low-wage under-benefited ones--as "associates"?

Nick said...

I'm not sure its a reflection of all that much except an evolution in common usage. I don't think many workers in France think of themselves as "travailleurs" or "travailleuses", those words don't get used much outside of Arlette Laguiller speeches. Salarie, although it is vexingly passive, is more commonly used, therefore it makes sense for the CGT, in its efforts to be close to the workers, to use it as well.
You may have noticed that unions in the U.S., even relatively left-wing unions, no longer publicly use formulas like "working class", preferring "working families" at best or, as you point out, the misleading "middle class" (if there is a middle, there must necessarily be a top and a bottom, and who speaks for the bottom if not labor?) On some level it is irritating and mealy-mouthed, but on the other hand, there is something old and musty about "working class", no one uses the phrase anymore outside of the academy.
I give a pass to the CGT on this one, especially since it is always being criticized for being too old-school.
-- Nick