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Translating Polysyndeton: A new approach to “Idiomaticism”

Joachim Zemmour


This experimental study is a synthetic presentation of a series of “rules” relative to the construction of complex sentences in French, specifically with regards to the use of coordinated structures. It is an adaptation of part of my PhD dissertation, whose subject was the translation of “polysyndeton” from English into French, observed from a “pragmatic” perspective as defined by Jean-René Ladmiral. As a translatologist, my approach is neither that of a linguist, nor that of a literature scholar, but that of a researcher mainly interested in the pragmatics of translation. It is not, therefore, set within any exclusive theoretical framework, especially as far as linguistics is concerned (translatology being, by its very nature, an interdisciplinary field). The primary aim of this doctoral research was to achieve a better understanding of what is traditionally—but often too vaguely—called “idiomaticism”, more especially as regards the French language. Throughout the article, the concept of “idiomaticism” has been described as a series of “thought patterns” that have an influence on the syntax of the French sentence, without being a formal (i.e. grammatical) constituent of it. These “rules” or “tendencies” could be particularly useful for learners of French as a foreign language.

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1The aim of this research paper is to present a couple of new syntactic rules — or construals — dealing with the structure of the complex sentence in French, which I came to formulate while working on the translation of “polysyndeton”, specifically from English into French, as part of my PhD dissertation (Zemmour 2012). I am purposefully placing the word “grammatical” in quotation marks since, as we shall see, these structural rules are not dependent upon any rigid, arbitrary linguistic patterns — which is the traditional definition of grammar — but rather upon thought patterns that are specific to what may be called “French idiomaticism”. To apply these structural rules, one must have deep logical and semantic understanding of the sentence. If applied, these rules allow the sentence to be felt as perfectly normal — that is, idiomatic — in any given type of French written text. If the rules are not applied, then the sentence cannot truly be rejected as being ungrammatical, but will be felt by native French-speakers as being awkward, not very naturally phrased, or not genuine.

2This presentation will thus follow the train of thoughts that led me to the discovery of these rules or — I should prefer to say — “tendencies” of written French. As a first step in this demonstration, I shall give a synthetic outline of my approach of the functional divergence between the English conjunction “and” and the French conjunction “et”, in view to illustrate how the particular function of “et” in French—as opposed to that of “and” in English—impedes a literal or direct translation of English coordinated structures into French, as far as the complex sentence is concerned (whence the frequent use of subordination, coordinating paraphrases, and other devices.). Comparing therefore French with English, I shall eventually draw out a few complex tendencies regarding the use of the coordinating conjunction “et”, leading to a set of rules whose validity many genuine examples will contribute to support.

“And” vs. “Et”: a Fundamental Cognitive Divergence

3Polysyndeton (from Greek πολυ, “many” and σύνδετος, “bound together” —i.e. “many-ands”) is one of the major syntactic devices used in texts written in English. More than a mere figure of speech, relegated to poetic or literary texts only, it may be considered as a figure of syntax that has survived over the centuries: from the early Christian texts to the poetry of the Romantics, down to modern-day English. In an article entitled “Coordination et cognition” (EA 58-4, 2005), French linguist Jean-Rémi Lapaire, writing about the syntax of the English sentence, highlights “l’importance des coordonnants dans la masse lexicale générale d’un texte (autour de 4 %) et la centralité de and dans le système de la coordination.

  • 1 Although any (professional) French translator knows about this “rule of thumb”, no official treatis (...)

4Yet, in many cases, a direct translation of the English polysyndetic structure into French seems impossible to achieve. Indeed, French translators traditionally (but quite unofficially) tend to avoid the repetition of “et” at all cost—supposedly because of the “ugliness” of the [e] sound1. As opposed to English texts in which the word “and” stands for 4% of total lexicon, I have found that French texts use coordinated structures amounting to only 1.5 to 2% of their global lexical items. Indeed, the French language “ties up” sentence elements by other means than mere coordination, especially the following: simple neutralization of the coordinating device (whether or not coupled with the use of a punctuation sign), coordinating paraphrases, and subordination (whether verbal or adverbial). Many linguists have noticed that French is “une langue liée”, in the words of Canadian translatologists Vinay and Darbelnet (1958: 220); and that, by comparison, English is a more flexible language, allowing for a much freer use of coordination. As a matter of fact, Anglophone authors writing in the polysyndetic style of novelists such as, for instance, Ernest Hemingway, are extremely difficult to translate in idiomatic French, since the translator often has to “sacrifice” the style for the sake of intelligibility. Or in the two linguists’ own words: “Même en essayant d’écrire comme Hemingway il est douteux que le français s’accommode de deux « et » de suite. [...] C’est une des caractéristiques du style de Hemingway d’utiliser très peu de charnières. Il est possible, surtout en français moderne, de procéder de même, jusqu’à un certain point” (Vinay and Darbelnet 1958: 229). What attracted my attention was this enigmatic “jusqu’à un certain point”, and I therefore endeavoured to understand the difference between English coordination and French coordination (from a translatologist’s, not a linguist’s, perspective).

  • 2 For instance, Le Grand Robert de la langue française gives the following definition of ‘et’: “Conjo (...)

5If we should refer to traditional grammar2, the only constraint pending upon “et” is that it must relate two words, phrases or clauses of same syntactic function—which, in pragmatic terms, highlights a structural impossibility in French, yet without providing us with any solution to solve it (as far as interlingual translation is concerned). We thus have to seek the solution elsewhere. In her book Syntaxe comparée de l’anglais et du français, Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher (1981: 82) brought a few answers to this complex question:

Lorsque des procès mis en relation sont exprimés par des verbes animés et envisagés en tant qu’occurrences, l’absence ou la présence d’un signe de coordination aura une incidence sur la détermination aspectuelle dans l’inter-relation des procès. Nous avons souvent

– en français une juxtaposition qui pourra prendre une valeur de chronologie mais sans que celle-ci soit explicitée par des marqueurs linguistiques.

– en anglais une séquence :

[67]–He swung it once and twice and again. He heard the tiller break and he lunged at the shark with the splintered butt.

(E. Hemingway, The Old Man, p. 107)

– Il cogna deux fois, trois fois, dix fois. La barre se rompit. Il continua à cogner avec le morceau cassé.

(J. Dutourd, p.145)

En français, les procès sont simplement ordonnés dans le temps du récit. En anglais, ils s’enchaînent dans un ensemble et chaque procès est repéré par rapport au procès qui le précède dans la séquence.

  • 3 I am referring here to a concept explained by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens in their introduct (...)

6In this excerpt, Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher interestingly enough quotes a sentence taken from a novel by Ernest Hemingway to illustrate the polysyndetic character of a typical English (complex) sentence. Her claim seems to be that the French language, by ordering the actions chronologically that is, by making a list of them is more analytical than the English language, which situates every action according to the previous one, in a sort of straightforward/immediate way. While French has a broad analytical view of the events, English would appear to narrate everything “as it happens”. However, this statement born of a thorough contrastive analysis does not tell us why it is impossible to proceed in exactly the same way in French. And the answer to that, as shall be shown, lies in the way in which the function of “et” is thought in French. Or, to state my approach in more simple words: What happens in the mind of an English-speaker when s/he encounters “and” in a text is different from what happens in the mind of a French-speaker when s/he encounters “et”. From this psychological3 divergence, arise most of the diverse “tendances déformantes” in the words of Antoine Berman in the French translations of foreign texts (especially as far as English polysyndeton is concerned). Although this paper — a synthetic overview of my doctoral research — does not fit in one specific and exclusive theoretical framework, being of experimental and cross-disciplinary nature, one may argue that most, if not all of the “French tendencies” described here are instances of what Cognitive Linguistics would call construals, a concept described by R. W. Langacker in the following terms:

An expression’s meaning is not just the conceptual content it evokes — equally important is how that content is construed. As part of its conventional semantic value, every symbolic structure construes its content in a certain fashion. It is hard to resist the visual metaphor, where content is likened to a scene and construal to a particular way of viewing it. […] In viewing a scene, what we actually see depends on how closely we examine it, what we choose to look at, which elements we pay most attention to, and where we view it from. (Langacker 2013: 55)

7In this article, I am only presenting (what I consider to be) a few instances of French “construals”, in their concrete form/realisation as syntactic rules, while leaving the mystery of the nature of the (French) “mind” itself unsolved.

8According to Halliday and Hasan (1976), “and” is a form of conjunctionthat is, a type of cohesive/structural link that binds two elements of a sentence, or two separate sentences. They claim that the cohesive function of “and” is achieved principally through meaning; in other words, “and” would only be the linguistic mark of a preexisting semantic or logical link. Therefore “and”, in itself, may not serve as a creator of semantic or logical link. This analysis seems to be shared by Quirk (1972: 560), according to whom, “And denotes merely a relation between the clauses. The only restriction is the semantic one that the contents of the clauses should have sufficient in common to justify their combination.” If we follow this idea, “and” may not be used, then, as a discourse-organizing device. This is what Halliday and Hasan (1976: 233) seem to agree on, when they claim that:

The “and” relation is felt to be structural and not cohesive, at least by mature speakers; this is why we feel a little uncomfortable at finding a sentence in written English beginning with And, and why we tend not to consider that a child’s composition having and as its dominant sentence linker can really be said to form a cohesive whole.

9Through this simple statement, the authors seem to occult a whole piece of English literature, including: King James’s Bible, Romantic poetry, the novels of Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, among many others. In other words, they dismiss some of the most influential literary works of the English language (especially the Bible, which contributed to shape the language), known for their extensive use of polysyndeton. Contrary to what the two linguists claim, “and” is indeed used as a discourse-organizer in many texts written in English by mature speakers, including modern-day newspaper and “blog” articles (as shall be shown later). In an experimental study, I chose a sample of technical/pragmatic text taken from a website dealing with the diverse species of butterflies thriving in Great-Britain,4 managed by professional English-born writers, and exhibiting a straightforward polysyndetic character. Here is, as a typical instance of what I call English polysyndeton, a short paragraph taken from this website:

The blue form of the female in which the blue scaling extends over the fore and hind wings obliterating the brown ground colour except along the costa and outer margins, and with orange lunules present on all wings is called ab. ceronus.

10The authors of this website were all either professional journalists, or professional (technical) writers, whose language proficiency is not to be doubted. From the highly technical content of the quoted sentence, one can clearly see indeed that this is not a “childish” sentence; yet, the syntax at the end of the sentence may appear to be rather free and puzzling (at least, for a French-born reader). “And with” here attaches the last clause to the grammatical subject found at the very beginningthat is, “the blue form of the female”in a very flexible way that would be utterly impossible to replicate in French. As a consequence, it might be said that the conjunction “and” creates textual cohesion in this particular sentence, instead of being the trace of a pre-existing logical link. What is far more interesting in Halliday and Hasan’s Cohesion in English (1976: 233), however, is the way that they distinguish two different functions of “and” in English: an additive function (for words, verbs and adverbs bound together), and a conjunctive function (in the case of whole clauses bound together). The first only adds up one element to another, while the second implies a logical link. We shall see, later on in this demonstration, that the French link-word “et” only shares with “and” its additive function. Quirk (1972: 561-2) seems to share the view of Halliday and Hasan when he evokes the idea of a purely additive “and” that he contrasts with a series of other functions (consequence, chronology, commentary, etc.). What seems rather obvious, therefore, from reading these authors’ interpretation of the function of “and”, is that the typical concept of “coordination” attributed to the word by traditional grammarians falls short of its complex and manifold potentialities. “And” is indeed a coordinating conjunction in English, but not only.

11According to Lapaire and Rotgé (1991: 298), the main difference between coordination and subordination is that “les subordonnants et coordonnants partagent une même fonction jonctive (“de mise en relation”) entre une proposition P1 et une proposition P2, mais […] la subordination — ainsi que le suggère son nom — les hiérarchise très nettement.” What seems clear is that in many instances, “and” has properties very close to subordination in the English complex sentence. This concept of “prioritization”, however, is extremely difficult to handle since it is closely related to psychology and the way in which the human mind interprets reality. According to Quirk (1972: 720), “While coordination is a linking together of two or more elements of equivalent status and function, subordination is a non-symmetrical relation, holding between two clauses X and Y in such a way that Y is a constituent or part of X” whereas S. C. Dick (1980: 59) laconically explains that “[t]he term subordination is mostly used for constructions in which a clause functions as a modifier”. Should we apply this consensual definition of subordination to the above-mentioned sentence, we would find that “and with orange lunules present on all wings” is a constituent that is, an attribute of “the blue form of the female”, having the same function as “in which the blue scaling extends […]” with its obvious subordinating conjunction, but not sharing any link whether symmetrical or asymmetrical with this previous clause (i.e. there is no obvious link between the fact that the blue colour extends on the wings, and the fact that the tips of the wings have orange spots, the two being almost antagonistic). It might therefore be said that “and with” has a subordinating function here although the word “and” is traditionally associated with coordination. The two clauses do not stand on the same plane. It would seem, then, that the boundary that sets apart coordination from subordination is a very fuzzy one, and depends more on the speaker/writer’s state of mind and level of psychological elaboration, as 20th century structural linguist Lucien Tesnière (1959: 313) suggested: “Mais en fait, l’hypotaxe, étant plus abstraite que la parataxe, n’est pas toujours aperçue par les sujets parlants, de telle sorte que, même s’il y a véritablement hypotaxe dans le rapport des idées entre elles, ce rapport peut n’être pas senti, auquel cas l’idée est exprimée, un peu inexactement il est vrai, sous la forme structurale de la parataxe.” Although I do not agree with Tesnière’s idea that speakers of polysyndetic languages such as English — “lack” abstract comprehension of the links between the ideas they express (i.e. my hypothesis is rather that they do not need/are not expected to express these hierarchical links, but can do so if they wish to), I adhere to his conception of hypotaxis being a more “psychologically elaborated” that is, a clearer, more analytical — expression of the link that binds up two complex ideas or elements (although it must be added here that Tesnière paradoxically believed that there was no relationship between psychology and syntax).

  • 5 The concept of “stemma”, invented by Tesnière, is a graphic representation of the sentence in which (...)

12If we now turn to Tesnière’s (1959: 109) conception of the sentence, in which the node is embodied by the verb (rather than by the grammatical subject), we can schematize our original sentence using the following stemma,5 where all levels correspond to a certain form of syntactic priority (ranging from top=superior to bottom=inferior), and all the vertical lines symbolize the links that the mind draws between those levels:



The blue form of the female

called ab. Ceronus

in which the blue scaling extends over the fore and hind wings / and with* orange lunules present on all wings


Obliterating the brown ground colour (except along the costa and outer margins)

13Thus represented, the (simplified) stemma of this sentence shows without any doubt that “and with” acts here as a subordinating conjunction that transforms the subject “the blue form of the female” by means of an attributive clause. Should we leave aside the first of the two attributive clauses, and rewrite the sentence without modifying anything in its syntax, the result would thus read as follows:

*The blue form of the female and with [which has] orange lunules on all wings is called ab. ceronus.

14Such an artificial rephrasing shows how very much flexible, even “primary” in its construction, the original sentence happens to be, especially in the binding together of the grammatical subject and its second attribute. One easily understands that the author, once having reached the end of the first (lengthy) attributive clause, somewhat forgot about the original syntax he had intended for the sentence and carried on expressing his thoughts by using “and” as a linking device. In English, such a “loose” textual binding does not appear to be shocking for the authors. The word “and” seems to be used as an active textual connector that originates from the writer’s “instinctive mind” rather than from any notion of factual logic. The word “and” thus only states that a link exists, whether or not this link can be interpreted from the syntax or context-meaning, in a sort of “moving forwards” of the mind. When the precise nature of the link is not directly interpretable, the reader then assumes that the link exists, and moves backwards or forwards to find the right interpretation. My view is that contrary to English, where “and” may have both a semantic and textual function, the word “et” in French only has a semantic function, which implies that the logical or semantic link that “et” expresses should be salient from the context. Therefore “et” cannot establish the link, it is only the textual marker of a pre-existing link that the reader should have no difficulty (re)interpreting. While English “and” has a much broader anaphoric range, which might be said to correspond to a “moving forwards” of the mind, French “et” indicates that the link is manifest, and that the reader’s mind should not move very far backwards to interpret it (i.e. the mind should look backwards to the closest element of same syntactic nature), which would then correspond to a “moving backwards” of the mind. Whenever the first or main element is either too far back in the sentence, or not clearly or directly interpretable, the French writer will try to clarify the link by using either subordination or a coordinating paraphrase, in order to prevent any interpretative effort on the reader’s part. What the reader expects is therefore different with “and” or with “et”. This is what clearly show the two commissioned French translations of the original English sentence, which are reproduced here below:

* La femelle présente une forme bleue appelée aberration ceronus : ses écailles bleues s’étendent sur les ailes avant et arrière, masquant le brun de la couleur de fond–les côtes et la marge externe des ailes sont épargnées. Des lunules de couleur orangée sont également présentes. (Aquitaine Traduction, 2011)

** La femelle sur laquelle des rayures bleues s’étendent sur les ailes antérieures et postérieures à la place du marron qui est la teinte majoritaire, sauf le long des bords extérieurs et la partie centrale, et qui arbore des lunules orange sur les ailes est appelée ab. ceronus. (A4 Traduction 2011)

15What is striking in these two independent translations of the same sentence is the systematic reinterpretation of the link between the grammatical subject and its second attribute. In the first version (Aquitaine Traduction), any form of syntactic linkage between “les côtes et la marge externe des ailes” and “des lunules de couleur orange” is strictly avoided by a complete restructuring of the sentence, so as to prevent any confusion of the mind. By bringing subject and verb closer together, by clearly setting apart the two attributes through the lengthening out of the two adverbs into verbs, through the addition of both a full stop and the adverb “également”, one clearly understands that “des lunules de couleur orange” is detached from the (brown-coloured) “côtes et marge externe des ailes”, which would not have been the case if the translator had chosen “et”.

16In the second version (A4 Traduction), the translator seems to have been rather literal (the syntax follows very closely that of the original sentence), except at the very spot where the coordinating link might mislead the French reader. Although the translator kept the word “et” (for the sake of faithful literality, we may suppose), s/he opted for a twofold lengthening by using a subordinating device, “qui” (which reminds the reader of the original subject) and by using the verb “arborer” which clearly refers to the insect. This reinterpretation of the original English sentence thus allows for more clarity in the French text, although we notice a translation mistake here (the female insect itself is not what specialists call “ab. Ceronus”, it is only a certain colour-pattern present on a few individuals). Thus, interestingly enough, the psychology of French syntax (which I have proposed to call French idiomaticism) is responsible for the translation mistake here. If we keep the literalistic syntax of this translated sentence, and if we reestablish the original syntax at the end, the resulting sentence would indeed seem quite puzzling to a French reader:

(?) La femelle sur laquelle des rayures bleues s’étendent sur les ailes antérieures et postérieures à la place du marron qui est la teinte majoritaire, sauf le long des bords extérieurs et la partie centrale, et avec des lunules orange sur les ailes est appelée ab. ceronus

17I believe that the fact that “et” tends to call the reader’s attention backwards to the closest element of same syntactic nature is at the heart of the translation problem treated above. From this specificity in the function of “et” in French, arises a series of structural “laws” or tendencies that I shall now synthetically outline with the help of some genuine examples.

Syntactic Rules Regarding the Use of “Et” in the French Complex Sentence

18In this second part, I shall present a sample of some of the major syntactic rules or “tendencies” of written French that I have reconstructed from thorough observation and analysis of the texts pertaining to my corpus (mainly, works of 19th century and early 20th century poetry and literature, as well as one contemporary text of pragmatic character). The literary texts were primarily chosen within the field of Romantic literature for the simple reason that, in order to conduct a contrastive study of original English texts with their French corresponding versions, I needed to find works that had been extensively translated in the French language (at least twice, and preferably more than twice), by different translators, which is the case of a number of British and American literary works written in the 19th century, while modern works have usually been translated only once — if at all. As explained earlier, the pragmatic text — whose specificity was that it belonged to the 21st century and was therefore a realistic sample of modern language use — had never received any French translation as yet, and I therefore commissioned two professional and independently-led translations. The following rules are not, strictly speaking, “grammatical rules” in the sense that their non-observance has no effect on the “linguistic acceptability” of the sentences; the latter look perfectly correct in their construction, and do not seem to break any grammatical rules as far as traditional French grammar is concerned, although native speakers may feel a certain “strangeness” or “awkwardness” in them, and may even have difficulty making clear sense of them. Such non-observance corresponds to what French teachers often call, for lack of a better word or explanation, “le mal dit”. I have proposed to classify these rules within the category of idiomaticism, as a field separate from grammar.

Rule of Asyndetic Enumeration and Syntactic Closure

19As many other linguists including Lucie Hoarau (1997: 164) have also claimed in their works, I have suggested in my doctoral dissertation that the most idiomatic way to present a list of lexical (especially nominal) items in French is by using what is traditionally called “asyndetic enumeration”, which means that all the elements of the list are presented the one following the other, separated by a comma that is, without any coordinating conjunction with the word “et” (usually unpreceded by a comma) marking the end of the list, while introducing the very last element of the latter. A typical example of that would be: ce matin, au marché, j’ai acheté du pain, du fromage, de la salade, des courgettes et des pommes. In French, given the fact that “et” calls the reader’s mind backwards to the closest element of same syntactic nature, polysyndetic enumeration is therefore used as a stylistic device in order to insist on every single element of the enumeration, with the effect of suggesting a certain feeling of excess, of superfluous abundance (i.e. a certain form of “heaviness”). In a French polysyndetic enumeration, the mind is drawn backwards and is made to rest and ponder upon each enumerated element, as opposed to English polysyndeton in which the mind is pushed forwards in a sort of emphatic movement, suggestive of exuberance and (bountiful) profusion. To illustrate this fundamental difference, let us consider these two sentences taken from my corpus, where polysyndeton is used first in English and then in French:

* Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket,
and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn,
and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child, […]
(from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, 1819)

** Et son bras et sa jambe, et sa cuisse et ses reins,
Polis comme de l’huile, onduleux comme un cygne,
Passaient devant mes yeux clairvoyants
et sereins;
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne...
(from Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Bijoux”, 1857)

20In the first stanza by John Keats, the polysyndetic structure summons up an image of natural growth and profusion, so that the mind looks forwards to the next element of this floral abundance with a delightful feeling of expectation; whereas in the French stanza by Charles Baudelaire, polysyndeton is clearly used as a (classical) stylistic device, and the effect achieved here is much different. Indeed, the poet does not want to convey a feeling of endless profusion (although he does use a botanical metaphor), nor is he trying to create an effect of expectancy but on the very contrary, Baudelaire here is heavily insisting on his ideal lover’s body parts, thus creating a feeling of (erotic) languorousness… He is trying to call back and fix his memories of the loved woman, instead of projecting his mind forwards into the future. Due to this functional divergence regarding the use of polysyndeton in the two languages, it might be observed that on the whole, the French translators of John Keat’s poem mostly used either asyndeton (only commas) or canonical enumeration (no comma before “et”) in their rendition, while the poets who translated Baudelaire’s poem into Englishreverselytransformed the polysyndeton into asyndeton (which clearly proves that in terms of its effect/function, English polysyndeton corresponds rather faithfully to French complete asyndeton, and vice-versa). Here are, as an illustration of this hypothesis, some of the French and English translations of these two well-known stanzas:

Excerpt from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:

Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket,
and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn,
and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child, [...]
(original text, 1819; straightforwardly polysyndetic, as reflected by the second “and” right in the middle of the list, and the use of commas before “and”)

Chaque senteur que ce mois printanier offre
À l’herbe, au fourré
, aux fruits sauvages ;
À la blanche aubépine
, à la pastorale églantine ;
Aux violettes vite fanées sous les feuilles ;
Et à la fille aînée de Mai,[…]
(Alain Sueid, 1994; clearly asyndetic as far as the second and third verses are concerned; use of canonical enumeration applied to the whole stanza)

Les senteurs que le mois saisonnier distribue
À l’herbe,
et au buisson, aux sauvages fruitiers –
L’épine blanche
et l’églantine des prairies ;
Aux violettes tôt flétries enfouies sous les feuilles ;
Et à la fille aînée de mai, […]
(Fouad El-Etr, 2009; a rather unsettling rendition where the translator, it seems, particularly in the second verse, has “hesitated” between asyndeton and polysyndeton, so that he somewhat “merged” the two in a very unusual way)

J’isole dans l’obscur odorant les senteurs :
et le fourré, les ronces, l’aubépine,
Sous les feuilles les violettes qui déclinent
et l’églantinier des pastoureaux,
Et la rose musquée aux pétales mi-clos, […]
(Pierre-Louis Matthey, 1950; here again, asyndeton and polysyndeton both seem to have been merged in a very unusual way)

21Such a comparison shows that the effect conveyed by polysyndeton in English is clearly different from that conveyed by the same sentence-structure in French, and is more naturally conveyed by asyndeton. Let us now turn to some of the translations of Baudelaire’s stanza from “Les Bijoux”:

Excerpt from Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Bijoux”:

Et son bras et sa jambe, et sa cuisse et ses reins,
Polis comme de l’huile, onduleux comme un cygne,
Passaient devant mes yeux clairvoyants
et sereins ;
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne…
(original text, 1857; straightforwardly polysyndetic)

Her limbs and hips, burnished with changing lustres,
Before my eyes clairvoyant
and serene,
Swarmed themselves, undulating in their sheen;
Her breasts
and belly, of my vine the clusters,
(Roy Campbell, 1952; neutralization of the original polysyndeton, use of canonical enumeration)

The whole lithe harmony of loins, hips, buttocks, thighs,
and sleek, and undulant as the neck of a swan,
Began to move hypnotically before my eyes:
And her large breasts, those fruits I have grown lean upon,
(George Dillon, 1936; mixed use of complete asyndeton and polysyndeton)

In turn, her arms and limbs, her veins, her thighs,
Polished as nard, undulant as a swan,
Passed under my
serene clairvoyant eyes
As belly and breasts, grapes of my vine, moved on.
(Jacques Leclerc, 1958; straightforward use of asyndeton)

22These three examples show that asyndeton is preferred over polysyndeton when it comes to translating French polysyndetic structures, which seems to corroborate my hypothesis. It also shows, as a natural consequence, that polysyndeton is not the natural way of expressing enumeration in French (not any more than asyndeton is the preferred structure in English), and that its use conveys a strong stylistic effect due to the breaking of the usual idiomatic rule. As have already been stated earlier, the idiomatic way of expressing enumeration in French is: element 1, element 2, (potentially extensible) ET element 3. Upon encountering the conjunction “et” following a list of enumerated elements (usually nouns), the French mind stops, then makes a review of what has occurred previously, before integrating the last element of the list. This implies, therefore, a strong analytical reaction attached to the use of “et” once integrated in a list. I have put forwards the hypothesis that in the case of an enumeration, the conjunction “et” must introduce an element that is syntacticly closed. Whenever the last element is syntacticly developed or “lengthened out”, the psychological expectancy attached to “et” is broken. As a consequence, each time the last element is being developed, the French writer will tend to substitute a coordinating paraphrase for the conjunction “et”. The following examples, taken from Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), shall illustrate this idiomatic rule:

“Les outils furent sortis de la caisse, où se trouvait justement la pelle de Fleurance. Puis, quand Maheu y eut enfermé leurs sabots [1], leurs bas [2], ainsi que le paquet d’Étienne [3], il s’impatienta brusquement. ”

23[Here, it is the first time that “le paquet d’Etienne” is being mentioned, so that “d’Etienne” is not really an attributive but rather a genitive, that is an equivalent for “that belonged/belonging to Etienne”, whence the idea of syntactic development and the use of “ainsi que” rather than “et”.]

“À chaque bourrasque, le vent paraissait grandir, comme s’il eût soufflé d’un horizon sans cesse élargi. Aucune aube [1] ne blanchissait* dans le ciel mort, les hauts fourneaux [2] seuls flambaient*, ainsi que les fours à coke [3], ensanglantant* les ténèbres, sans en éclairer l’inconnu. ”

24[The clause “ensanglantant les ténèbres, sans en éclairer l’inconnu” develops the nominal group “les fours à coke” (emitting reddish smoke) that ends the list of “light-related” items, whence the use of a coordinating paraphrase. The common verb, “flambaient”, also breaks the list.]

“On se contentait, à la Direction, de dresser des listes de renvoi, on rendait les livrets en masse : Maheu [1] avait reçu le sien, Levaque [2] aussi, de même que trente-quatre de leurs camarades [3], au seul coron des Deux-Cent-Quarante.”

25[The underlined clause is a locative attibute of “trente-quatre de leurs camarades”, whence the use of “de même que” rather than “et”.]

26In the following paragraph, I shall compare a sentence taken from a short story by Ernest Hemingway with its published French translation, so as to illustrate the same rule of French idiomaticism:

“There were four hundred and fifty passengers and the crew on board of her […]”. (Ernest Hemingway, After the Storm, 1933)

27This sentence is actually an enumeration or list of the boat’s passengers. Therefore, the conjunction “and” closes the list that is here constituted of two elements: four hundred and fifty passengers + the crew. Let us now see how this sentence was coped with in its French translation:

“Il y avait à bord quatre cent cinquante passagers plus l’équipage […]”. (Translation by Henri Robillot and Marcel Duhamel, 1949)

28What we can see here is that the translators eluded the problem of imperfect syntactic closure by relocating the locative item “on board of her” at the beginning of the sentence, while also using the coordinating paraphrase “plus” (which is quite unusual in written French). I would also suggest the following possible rendition:

Il y avait quatre cent cinquante passagers, ainsi que l’équipage à bord.

29I suggest that a literal rendition with “et”, as follows, would imply the (absurd) idea that somehow only the crew is on board:

(?) Il y avait quatre cent cinquante passagers et l’équipage à bord.

Rule of Avoidance of Syntactic Ambiguity

30I have put forwards the hypothesis that French writers systematically avoid any form of double — or multiple — interpretation of the syntax of a sentence. A more pragmatic definition would be that French tends to reject any form of double or multiple stemma (i.e. when the sentence can theoretically be schematized by two or more stemmas), and therefore imposes a single syntactic interpretation, leading to a single possible stemma. This, of course, does not apply to certain specific forms of poetic discourse, where ambiguity is purposefully sought. It is a characteristic feature of (what I have tried to define as) French idiomaticism, which demands a certain amount of interpretative clarity on the writer’s part (thus narrowing the range of interpretative possibilities offered to the reader). By contrast, the English complex sentence can hold a double stemma/syntactic interpretation as long as the right interpretation (in terms of meaning) is clearly interpretable from the context, or as long as the double stemma does not affect the general meaning at all. Yet, in French, the syntactic interpretation (which is to be distinguished from the “logical” interpretation or “the sense”) has to be always clarified and made unique, whether or not the understanding of the meaning is involved. In the present case, I am — naturally — only coping with the problematic use of “et” in the complex sentence (although I believe this phenomenon reaches far beyond the sole problem of coordination). In order to illustrate this view, I have selected two instances of mirrored (English/French translated) sentences from the aforementioned pragmatic text used in my corpus, and I shall now comment individually on these:

* Although very similar in appearance to a Brown Argus, the two can be separated by location in the British Isles, since the Northern Brown Argus is found only in the north of England and Scotland.

Translation 1(Aquitaine Traduction): Malgré une grande ressemblance avec l’Argus Brun, ces deux espèces ne résident pas dans les mêmes régions des îles britanniques : l’Argus de l’hélianthème se rencontre uniquement au nord de l’Angleterre et en Écosse.

Traduction 2 (A4 Traduction): Bien que son apparence soit similaire à celle de l’Argus brun, ces deux espèces se distinguent de part [sic] leur localisation dans les Îles britanniques, l’Argus de l’hélianthème n’étant présent qu’au nord de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse.

31In the original sentence, the use of coordination does not seem to pose any specific problem. Any English-speaker (and more specifically, any resident of Great-Britain) would clearly understand that the butterfly called “Northern Brown Argus” lives in the north of England and in Scotland. Indeed, contrary to human beings, insects know of no boundaries, and it therefore seems quite obvious that a species of butterfly would not “skip” part of a country for whatever fanciful reason. As a matter of fact, due to the flexible nature of “and” in English, the last part of this sentence — that is, “in the north of England and Scotland” — might receive three syntactic interpretations: (1) in the north of England and in Scotland (which is obviously the right interpretation), (2) in the north of England and in the north of Scotland (which is syntacticly possible, but totally nonsensical, when one knows the geography of Great-Britain and the way butterflies behave) and 3) in the north of an imaginary land that would be understood as the unification of both England and Scotland (such as “Trinidad-and-Tobago”, for instance). One might claim that the original English sentence is somewhat clumsy, and that its author should have plainly written “in Scotland”, had he been better acquainted with stylistics; yet our point here is not to judge neither the author of the text, nor its translators, but simply to look at a published piece of written text in English, and the way two professional translators dealt with it, as it is quite revealing of the “problem” of polysyndeton. In this case, let us just remark that the English sentence, as inelegant as it may sound, cannot really be described as “agrammatical” or unacceptable. As a natural feature of Anglophone psychology (such is my hypothesis), the English reader picks up the right interpretation, and is therefore not particularly puzzled by the structure of the last clause. What seems very interesting, though, is the fact that the French translations both clarified — in other words, interpreted — the end of the sentence in two different ways. The problem here is complex and manifold. First of all, let it be reminded (if needs be) that a literal rendition of the last clause would seem extremely strange, not to say absolutely agrammatical, in French:

(?) Malgré une grande ressemblance avec l’Argus Brun, ces deux espèces ne résident pas dans les mêmes régions des îles britanniques : l’Argus de l’hélianthème se rencontre uniquement au nord de l’Angleterre et l’Écosse.

(?) Bien que son apparence soit similaire à celle de l’Argus brun, ces deux espèces se distinguent de par leur localisation dans les Îles britanniques, l’Argus de l’hélianthème n’étant présent qu’au nord de l’Angleterre et l’Écosse.

32Such a phrasing seems particularly unidiomatic because “l’Angleterre et l’Écosse” do not form one single unit, such as in “Trinité-et-Tobago”, for instance. And even if the two nouns were conceptually linked, the addition of a particle would still be necessary. (One indeed would say “le courant passe au large de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse”, even if there is only one sea). Here, the repetition or inclusion of a particle after “et” is made compulsory in French. It is considered a grammatical rule. The question is whether this grammatical impediment is purely arbitrary, or whether there is (as I suppose) an underlying reason for it. I believe that this feeling of nonsensicality arises from a certain form of ambiguity in the syntax of the last clause in French, due to the limited anaphoric range of “et”. As stated earlier, my hypothesis is that “et” calls the reader’s mind backwards to the closest element of same syntactic nature, which here happens to be “l’Angleterre”. In this perspective, “l’Angleterre et l’Écosse” would tend to be considered first, and interpreted — in French but obviously not in English — as a single block in the reader’s mind, subordinated to “au nord de”, where the node of the stemma is “de” [i.e. in the north of England/Scotland alike]. Since the two countries are next to each other, and Scotland is de facto in the north of England, such a phrasing would seem quite puzzling (“au nord de l’Écosse” alone would be a more straightforward way to say it). If this interpretation is rejected — as it should naturally be — then the other possible interpretation is that the node of the stemma is “au nord” [i.e. in the north of England as well as in the north of Scotland] which does not make any sense in terms of insect behaviour, as we have seen. In both cases, therefore, the interpretation is somewhat absurd. In the English original sentence, indeed, the node of the stemma happens to be “found only in”, so that the last occurrence of “and” attaches “Scotland” to “found only in”. However, in French, the mind — as it does in English — would need to travel three times backwards into the sentence (1: l’Angleterre ˃ 2: nord de ˃ 3: au ) in order to retrieve the right element for interpretation (which, I have said, defies French idiomaticism). It is therefore necessary in French to clarify the logical link. In the first rendition (Aquitaine Traduction), the translator witfully clarified the link by adding the locative particle “en”, which clearly draws the mind back to the verb “se rencontre”, thus allowing for the right interpretation. In the second rendition (A4 Traduction), the translator mistakenly interpreted the stemma (as being “in the north of England and the north of Scotland”), but what is interesting to observe is that clarification of the syntax was necessary here in French, despite the interpretative mistake at the core, whereas the same kind of ambiguity seems to be tolerated in English. I believe this not due to an arbitrary need to repeat the particle “for its own sake”, but to the very function of “et”. In other words, my claim is that the need for the repetition of the particle “de” is only symptomatic of an underlying cognitive problem, related to the use of “et”. One might indeed reply to this latter analysis that, in one case or another, independently of meaning or interpretation, it would be necessary to write “au nord de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse” for the sentence to be grammatical in French, which is quite true. That even if we conceptually consider England and Scotland as one and the same land, a rendition by “au nord de l’Angleterre et l’Écosse” does not work, which again is very true. However, the interesting point is that simply adding “de” would not settle the matter. Such a phrasing would be so ambiguous in French that nobody would understand it. Its apparent grammaticality does not, therefore, make it idiomatic. In this regard, the translation by A4 Traduction (that chose “et de”) is doubly mistaken — both because it is factually wrong (it translated the wrong meaning), but even that wrong meaning is awkwardly translated, since the French reader will still hesitate between two interpretations. As it stands, “au nord de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse” could either mean, in French, a. “in the north of England-Scotland” and b. “in the north of England and in the north of Scotland”. To capture this nuance, a (more) proficient translator would probably have rendered a. with “au nord de l’ensemble formé par l’Angleterre et l’Écosse” (if such had been the true meaning) and b. with “dans le nord de l’Angleterre et dans celui de l’Écosse” (if such also had been the meaning). So we see here that the translation problem does not lie with the repetition — or absence thereof — of the particle “de” in itself, but altogether with the anaphoric range of “et”, of which the repetition of “de” is but a symptom (and not a cure, at least not in this sentence). Even a correct, grammatical rendition as “au nord de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse » (such as was produced by our guinea-pig translator) does not work. It is not idiomatic. In his/her wrong translation, the addition of “de” was only an unsuccessful attempt to make sense — by this pseudo-lengthening — of a cognitive pattern of sentence-making which is totally alien to the French mind. In this perspective, the translation mistake is extremely meaningful per se.

33Now, let us turn to the second example:

** On emerging from their eggs, Peacock larvae build a communal web near the top of the plant and from which they emerge to bask and feed and are usually highly conspicuous.

Translation 1(Aquitaine Traduction): Lorsqu’elles éclosent, les larves de Paon du jour tissent une toile qu’elles partagent, à proximité du sommet d’une plante. De là, elles peuvent sortir pour se réchauffer au soleil et se nourrir. Elles sont en général très facile (sic) à repérer.

Traduction 2 (A4 Traduction): Lorsqu’elles sortent des œufs, les larves de Paon du jour tissent une toile près du sommet de la plante elles viennent d’éclore afin de se reposer au soleil et de se nourrir, ce qui les rend généralement bien visibles.

34In the original sentence, the problematic trunk is of course “and of which” for the kind of syntactic ambiguity that it establishes. What is, indeed, the referent of “which”? From a purely logical point of view, the referent could be either (1) the plant; (2) the top of the plant; (3) or even a communal web. Since there is, factually, no difference between the three (the location remains almost the same), this kind of syntactic vagueness—made possible by the broad anaphoric range of “and”—does not seem to break the reader’s expectancies in English. In French, however, the same degree of vagueness/ambiguity would not be tolerated. Drawing from the second translation (A4 Traduction), let us try to produce a more “literalistic” version in order to illustrate this idea:

(?) Lorsqu’elles sortent des œufs, les larves de Paon du jour tissent une toile près du sommet de la plante et d’où elles émergent afin de se reposer au soleil et de se nourrir, ce qui les rend généralement bien visibles.

35Straightforwardly enough, such a sentence would sound extremely awkward/nonsensical in French. The conjunction “et” would here bind up the two verbs “tissent” (une toile) and “emergent” (from “où”). Whence the interpretative problem, due to the fact that the precise nature of this “où” needs to be clarified; and, as it happens, the very fact that “plante”, “sommet de la plante” and “toile” are all located at almost exactly the same spot, establishes the (logical) possibility of a triple stemma that French — as I have hypothesized — will try to avoid, even though the general meaning of the sentence is in no way affected by “et d’où”. In other words: the French writer, in such a case as this, needs to interpret the meaning for his/her sentence to be felt as idiomatic. We can see indeed that in the first translation (Aquitaine Traduction), the use of “de là” (which could also have been “et de là”), through the choice of a straightforwardly locative adverb, clearly links the verb “peuvent sortir” to the noun “sommet” (also a locative word). Had the interpretation rather borne on “la plante”, we may have expected to find “(et) de celle-ci”, for instance. In the second translation (A4 Traduction), the use of “où” (with no coordinating conjunction) unambiguously shows that the referent is “la plante”.

36In the two translated sentences, therefore, one can clearly observe that a single stemma has been (re)established in order to comply with the rules of French idiomaticism.

General Conclusion

37It is a well-known fact — amongst practicing translators, at the very least — that the (seemingly) most “basic” words are often the very ones that lead to mind-puzzling translation problems. I hope to have shown that the French conjunction “et” is one of these. According to traditional grammar, the only constraint or limit pending upon “et” is the fact that it must bind together two words, phrases or clauses of same syntactic nature or function. Although this is perfectly true, this limitation is clearly not the only constraint affecting coordinated constructions in French — there is also a psychological/cognitive aspect to the phenomenon of coordination. This cognitive aspect is the following: (1) the use of “et” implies that the logical or semantic link expressed by this means is straightforward to interpret from the context or co-text; (2) which implies that “et” tends to draw the reader’s mind backwards to the closest interpretable element of same syntactic nature or function; (3) with the limitation of a threefold backward (analytical) movement of the mind. In light of this, it seems manifest that such a specific type of constraint, far from being random or arbitrary, originates from the very nature and functioning of the human mind.

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Le Grand Robert de la Langue Française. “Et”. [accessed 23 January 2014]

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Steven Cheshire’s British Butterflies (pragmatic website dealing with the various species of butterflies living in the UK). [accessed 23 January 2014]

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1 Although any (professional) French translator knows about this “rule of thumb”, no official treatise or study seems to state it officially, interestingly enough.

2 For instance, Le Grand Robert de la langue française gives the following definition of ‘et’: “Conjonction de coordination qui sert à lier les parties du discours, les propositions ayant même fonction ou même rôle, à exprimer une addition, une liaison, un rapprochement“ (my emphasis). Similarly, in Le Bon Usage, Maurice Grevisse considers that: “les éléments coordonnés sont souvent de même nature et de même fonction“ (§ 265). He also argues that: “il est loin d’être rare, dans la langue parlée et dans la langue littéraire, que l’on coordonne des éléments de natures différentes, mais de fonction identique” (my emphasis). For further references, please refer to the selective bibliography at the end.

3 I am referring here to a concept explained by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens in their introductory text to The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics (2007), where the two linguists claim that “Cognitive Linguistics is cognitive in the same way that cognitive psychology is: by assuming that our interaction with the world is mediated through informational structures in the mind" (Geeraerts and Cuyckens 5).

4 The text, available at:, was then sent to two different translation agencies in France, one in Bordeaux (Aquitaine Traduction) and the other one in Paris (A4 Traduction). Each of them sent the text to an independent translator, who was not aware of the experimental character of the translation and was therefore ignorant of the fact that his or her work was being observed and analyzed.

5 The concept of “stemma”, invented by Tesnière, is a graphic representation of the sentence in which all connections, both visible and invisible (that is, both linguistically marked and unmarked), are pictured in the form of vertical lines between words and/or clauses. This complex system has been simplified for the purpose of this article.

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Electronic reference

Joachim Zemmour, Translating Polysyndeton: A new approach to “Idiomaticism”Angles [Online], 5 | 2017, Online since 01 November 2017, connection on 03 December 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joachim Zemmour

Joachim Zemmour has worked as a literary translator since 2009. He specializes in what is traditionally known as “speculative fiction” (fantasy literature, science fiction, supernatural fiction). In 2012, he defended a PhD dissertation on the subject of polysyndeton (in the field of translation studies), under the direction of Pr. Nicole Ollier, at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He then taught for three years at Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle University, before moving to the University of Perpignan (UPVD) in 2017. Recently, Joachim Zemmour translated Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (Le Livre du Cygne, in the French translation), an Aboriginal fantasy and social science fiction novel, for Actes Sud (2016), as well as Ceridwen Dovey’s Animals, a collection of short stories in which the main characters are all animals, for Héloïse d’Ormesson (2016). Contact: joachim.zemmour [at]

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Licence Creative Commons
Angles est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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