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Myths, Loose Fits and Near Misses

Some Highlighting Problems in Translating French Social Science1
Richard Nice
p. 141-151

Texte intégral

  • 1  Voir texte de référence, Vol. II, Annexe IV.

1I shall try to outline some of the problems of mise en relief encountered in the years that I have been translating the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The examples come from translation done in the course of 1988 : a translation of Le Sens pratique (Editions de Minuit, 1980) to be published in 1989 (Polity Press, Oxford) under the title – which itself deserves comment – The Logic of Practice ; and an article by two other sociologists, L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot. I shall talk in English, not just because it is easier, but also because I am concerned with difficulties of conceptualization and expression which relate specifically to translating from French to English ; the problems arise in English.

2The quotations are presented not as models of good translation – indeed some may dismay you and make you wonder if the translator has ever heard of or tried to apply any principles of contrastive stylistics – but as specimens of actual work, done, as ever, against the clock and illustrating some procedures which are often implemented in an almost (sometimes completely) unconscious way as aspects of a "habitus". I shall be trying to explain why, apart from questions of competence, I wilfully treat English in such an alien way. I shall be speaking as a – sympathetic – reviewer of my own translations.

3If I talk in English now, I am struck by a first and quite revealing difficulty : how to translate mise en relief.

4Foregrounding, highlighting… ? Already one might feel that the English metaphors are still live metaphors, that they lack the abstract quality of mise en relief, and that in some contexts this metaphorical vitality might be unwanted, a distracting and irrelevant mise en relief. For other contributors, the phrase mise en relief is perhaps a starting point in the sense that it is a signpost, defining a theme, naming a reality that can be discussed in some aspect of its specificity. But because for me the syntagm mise en relief is first of all a perfect instance of the syntactic and semantic difficulties that cause me most trouble in translating from French, I shall take the problems of the signifier as a route into discussion of the problem it signifies. The article that I shall discuss happens to 'highlight' some of these very problems and functions as a kind of… mise en abyme.

5Clearly, any form of the paradigm mise en … will raise at least a momentary and local difficulty when going into English and force even the most plodding translator out of the rut of syntactic calque. The procedures of syntactic transposition, through nominalization/verbalization, passivization, etc. have by now been well formalized and can be internalized as tricks of the métier. But I could show (the demonstration would be tedious) how my source text, with its very long sentences and paragraphs, and more generally the tidal flow of the argument, with its wavelike toing-and-froing, its multiple eddies, creates problems of overall cohesion that seem to require the suspension of many of these almost intuitive devices and force the translator into an extreme and seemingly slavish literalism. The product will, at best, always sound awkward. The disorienting awkwardness is no doubt aggravated by earnest but probably never entirely successful endeavours to reproduce some of the semantic work of the text, through some often foreign-seeming manoeuvres. Such expedients often seem to intensify a general stodginess and lack of clarity in the text ; it is not always clear what is going on, just what it is getting at. My struggle against, this entropic decay of significance, the lack of clear features to the argument, could also be called, no doubt, a problem of mise en relief. And there is an ultimate irony, on which I shall conclude : it is that, just occasionally, the problem is not that of reproducing a play on words, but rather of preventing it from hitting the mark too directly, of, si j'ose dire, coming too soon.

6The following sentence is fairly typical of the routine difficulties of a Bourdieu text :

Prendre le raccourci qui conduit directement de chaque signifiant au signifiant correspondant, faire l'économie du long détour par le système complet des signifiants à l'intérieur duquel se définit la valeur relationnelle de chacun d'eux (qui n'a rien à voir avec un "sens" intuitivement appréhendé), c'est se vouer à un discours approximatif qui, dans le meilleur des cas, tombe sur les significations les plus apparentes […].(SP p. 13)

Those who take the short cut which leads directly from each signifier to the corresponding signified, who dispense with the long detour through the complete system of signifiers within which the relational value of each of them is defined (which has nothing to do with an intuitively grasped 'meaning'), are inevitably limited to an approximative discourse which, at best, only stumbles onto the most apparent significations […].(LP p. 4)

7'Short cut' and 'stumbles' seem to me now to have an incongruous prominence which is due to their very expressiveness, their pictorial, metaphorical nature. Whereas 'short cut' was no doubt inevitable for raccourci, and it is not clear what alternative there might be to 'stumbles' for tombe, the latter actually struck me at the time as a trouvaille that would help to 'naturalize' the text, a point of simple, colourful English in an ocean of latinity. Unfortunately (and scores of similar examples could be given), the predominance of Latin polysyllables and Latin cadences cannot be dispelled, and local attempts to do so result in discordance rather than relaxation.

8The awkward struggle with tone and rhythm, in which the extreme latinism of the original style imposes itself and moreover seems to need to be respected, while at the same time the demands of the target language and the reader's tolerance call for a different treatment, a "Germanization" or "Anglo-saxonisation", is made more intense by the fact that this text works by explicating the implications of some everyday words and phrases which function as highly charged nexuses of meaning. These little words have to be translated in a consistent way, especially when they are the names of concepts. In English the spectrum of connotations is either too narrow, or too wide, or just simply wrong ; or it is shared between two or more words. Thus travail will split into work and labour according to context ; a systematic use of labour for travail will overcharge the text with Marxian echoes. Likewise, jeu will necessarily become play or game (or pehaps something else) depending on the collocation. Such dispersions all induce a loss of focus. On the other hand, for a central concept, le champ, 'field' is quite inevitable but it is both too banal, semantically 'poor' (it is readily used interchangeably with 'subject', 'area' and so on) and also too rich : it is hard to keep the agricultural connotations at bay.

9The problems in fact start with the title, Le Sens pratique. Without attempting to summarize the book, it would not be possible to indicate all its richness (the earlier Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique had as its epigraph the complete entry for sens from the Grand Robert) ; suffice it to say that I concluded that Sense in Practice or Making Sense of Practice might begin to do it justice. Such suggestions were rejected by the publisher on the grounds of obscurity. While it is gratifying to encounter any feedback from a user of one's translations, it is less so that one's best ideas are rejected for reasons of marketing. In the end, though, there are more important battles to be fought, within the text, than to be allowed to use a curious version of English.

10Not that the choices are always personal ones : more than one editor has had to be persuaded to swallow the word misrecognition, which is not in most of their dictionaries. But this is the logic of the field : Bourdieu's méconnaissance is the same word as méconnaissance in the texts of Lacan or Althusser, and even his disdain is a form of relationship which needs to be indicated to my readership. I have to know that in the 1970s Althusser's English translator opted for 'misrecognition', which was hardly current English at the time, but is now consecrated, canonical, among the cognoscenti. To connect with that universe of discourse, however obliquely, I need the same word. More generally and, for Francophones, self-evidently, méconnaissance implies connaissance et reconnaissance – and already, separately, I have to struggle to cope with the oscillations between reconnaissance (recognition) and reconnaissance (gratitude), without which the theory of symbolic power still stands up but is less intuitively persuasive.Knowledge/acknowledge will go only part of the way.

11If sens is the hardest word to translate in Le Sens pratique, the essence of Bourdieu's particular contribution to social science – his insistence on the difference between theory and practice – is almost compromised in translation by lexical difficulties. Following my author, I need to contrast the specificity of practice – its inventiveness and relative unpredictability – with the exécution of a prepared plan, script, scenario or score (and this, at least in the context of theatre, leads to représentation, which then duly connects with représentation in its philosophical, psychological and sociological usages). Now, the most natural word for 'doing' various actions, in English, is 'perform' ; but 'perform' is cognate with 'performance', which is on the side of exécution. In some contexts, 'perform' is not a word I can use, and this constraint is another factor making for awkwardness. On the positive side, there is an occasional gain to be made, as when 'enact' can be used to hint at both mettre en pratique and mettre en scene. Thus :

Meutre dénié, le sacrifice de l'animal quasi humain, intermédiaire et médiateur entre le monde naturel et le monde humain, dont le corps est traité comme une image et un substitut du corps social, s'accomplit dans le repas communiel, qui réalise pratiquement la résurrection des morts dans les vivants.(SP)

This denied murder – the sacrifice of a quasi-human animal, the intermediary and mediator between the natural world and the human world, whose body is treated as an image of and substitute for the social body – is accomplished in the communal meal, which practically enacts the resurrection of the dead in the living. (LP p. 247)

12I could note in passing that the context mercifully allows a solution to the otherwise intractable problem of the introductory phrase, in apposition to the real subject of the verb ; or that the dashes can be seen as a somewhat desperate expedient… but what remains pleasing is the successful deployment of 'enacts' which not only solves the problem of réalise but rectifies a host of less than adequate renderings, elsewhere, of the mises en pratique of ritual patterns. In short, a text that works, eloquently, in French, is always threatened with a slump into unintelligible grisaille in English (and yet, paradoxically, as I shall try to show, there can be moments where the translator's problem is the opposite : where his solutions can hit the mark too well, too soon.) The translator either accepts this disintegration and dispersion as an inevitable loss or resorts to perverse remedies (if the editor, prosaically concerned for normal criteria of acceptable English, lets him get away with it) :

In fact, practical logic can only function by taking all sorts of liberties with the most elementary principles of logical logic. Practical sense, working as a practical mastery of the sense of practices and objects, makes it possible to combine everything that goes in the same sense, everything that at least roughly fits together and can be adjusted to the ends in view. The presence of identical symbolic acts or objects in the rituals associated with such different events in the life of mankind or the field as funerals, ploughing, harvests, circumcision or marriage, has no other explanation. The partial coincidence of the meanings which the practical taxonomies confer on these events is matched by the partial coincidence of ritual acts and symbols whose polysemy perfectly suits practices that are essentially multifunctional. Without any need for symbolic mastery of the concepts of swelling and resurrection, the dish called ufthyen, a mixture of wheat and broad beans that swells when boiled, can be asociated with wedding, ploughing and funeral ceremonies, on the basis of what is there subsumed by the concept of resurrection. Equally, the same dish will be excluded ('because the gums would stay swollen') from moments like the cutting of teeth (in favour of thibuajajin, a kind of pancake which as it cooks produces bubbles that immediately burst), or circumcision, a rite of purification and virilization, i.e. separation from the female world, which belongs to the register of dryness, fire and violence (target shooting plays an essential role in it), and is accompanied by roast meat. Yet this does not prevent ufthyen from being associated with target shooting in one variant of a multifunctional ceremony like marriage, in which 'intentions' of virilization (opening) and fertilization are combined. (SP p. 434, LP p. 267)

13A more prudent translation might have accepted that sens here moves through 'sense', 'meaning' and 'direction'. But the question is what you want to mettre en relief. The paragraph is noteworthy in other respects : the verbs 'adjust' and 'fit' (the latter a non-Latin and wonderfully useful word) will reappear shortly ; the 'cutting of teeth' is an accidental but valuable gain in translation (compared to la pousse des dents) because it is precisely a question of cutting and separation.

14Some of these pre-occupations may become clearer if I take a detour through some examples from a text, which I also translated this year, a paper by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot ("Le Jugement dans un univers à plusieurs natures, le problème de l'accord dans une société complexe", originally presented at a CNRS colloquium in 1987). The quotations, out of context, may unfortunately appear as sybylline as those from Bourdieu. The text describes a larger research project on discursive and polemical strategies in interactions between social groups.

[…] les textes de philosophie politique utilisés ont été traités comme des entreprises grammaticales d'explicitation et de fixation de règles prescrip-tives permettant de bâtir une cité harmonieuse, et comme des modèles de la compétence commune exigée des personnes pour que cet accord soit possible. Ils nous ont servi à élaborer un modèle de l'ordre légitime, désigné comme modèle de cité, qui rend explicites les exigences que doit satisfaire un principe supérieur commun…

[…] the works of political philosophy that we have considered can be treated as grammatical undertakings aimed at stating and fixing the rules of agreement – in other words, simultaneously, as sets of prescriptive rules making it possible to build a harmonious political commonwealth and as models of the common competence required of persons in order for agreement to be possible. They enabled us to build up a model of legitimate order, designated as the model for a commonwealth, which makes explicit the requirements that a common higher principle has to satisfy…

15The immediately visible sign of mise en relief is the quantity of italics. These are words meant to be looked at twice, and often to be taken in more ways than one. Conventionally, English italicizes less than French (and so the dose is reduced in my version). For the central problematic term here, cité, the authors were consulted, and my choice, right or wrong, was made en connaissance de cause. There are many echoes of Hobbes in the whole text, so 'commonwealth' has the right date. One can only hope that the reader's historical sense prevails over the modern associations. The choice is not independent of what I found to be the most radical difficulty (attended by both awkwardness and loss) : the translation of grandeur, whose mathematical ('magnitude') and political ('greatness') uses take second place to a more economic usage in which it is related to bien, valeur and… mise en valeur.

La définition du bien commun est la clef de voûte de la construction et conduit à un ordre d'états de grandeur auxquels accèdent les personnes, sans qu'ils puissent leur être attachés de façon permanente, ce qui contredirait leur commune humanité. Par le choix même de prendre en compte ces contraintes, nous délimitons du même coup les sociétés pour lesquelles notre analyse de l'accord légitime prétend valoir […] ainsi que le partage entre les formes du bien commun ou de la grandeur, et d'autres valeurs illégitimes […]

The definition of the common good is the keystone of the construction and leads to an order of states of worth to which persons accede, without, however, having these states permanently attached to them, which would contradict their common humanity.Precisely by choosing to take account of these constraints, we delimit the societies for which our analysis of legitimate agreement claims validity […] and we also draw the dividing line between forms of the common good, or of worth, and other, illegitimate, values […]

16A new problem has arisen : accord. Superficially it is 'agreement' – and that was the eventual translation, but it would have been desirable to bring in, already, connotations of harmony (and the inter-textual target at the back of my mind was Ulysses's famous speech on social harmony – 'Untune that string…' – in Troilus and Cressida).

Des êtres très divers, par exemple des personnes, des institutions, des outils, des machines, des dispositions règlementaires, des moyens de paiement, des sigles et des noms, etc., sont liés et disposés les uns par rapport aux autres dans des assemblages suffisamment cohérents et ajustés pour que leur engagement soit jugé effectif […]

Very diverse entities, such as persons, institutions, tools, machines, regulations, means of payment, titles and names, are interlinked and organized in relation to one another in arrangements that are sufficiently adjusted to one another for their engagement to be judged effective […]

17'Engagement' felt awkward and servile even at the time but 'arrangement' seemed to compensate because it combines a basic assemblage meaning with an abstractness akin to juridical and bureaucratic uses of disposition in French. The key (italicized) word ajusté is to prove pregnant with meaning. So far, little can be done with it. Later its implications are unfolded :

Ainsi sommes-nous conduits à traverser la distinction entre les deux définitions de l'ajusté, orientées l'une vers la justice, l'autre vers la justesse, et à traiter avec les mêmes instruments conceptuels des situations dans lesquelles un désajustement sera qualifié dans le registre de l'injustice ou bien, par exemple, dans celui du dysfonctionnement.

We are thus led to override the distinction between the two definitions of fitting or adjustment, one of them oriented towards justice, what is 'fit and proper', the other towards accuracy ('a good fit'), and to apply the same conceptual instruments to situations in which a misadjustment will be defined in terms of injustice or, for example, in terms of dysfunction.

18Since the authors presumably think they are unfolding a universal verity rather than making a pun in French, some attempt has to be made to follow their thought. The polysemy of 'fit' was exploited to offer a belt-and-braces back-up to the inadequacy of the play on 'just'. At about the same time (see page 169, above), 'fit' was proving useful in translating Bourdieu, and this could be the recurrence of a translator's idée fixe.

L'ouverture du jeu, bien que bornée par la rigueur des différentes épreuves de la réalité, est maintenue par la possibilité, dans un univers à plusieurs natures, de […]

Although limited by the rigour of the various reality tests, a degree of 'clearance' in the 'fit' is maintained by the possibility, in a multi-natured univers, of […]

19'Game' for jeu has to be discarded although, the connotations (evoked by 'game theory', etc.) would have been helpful ; 'play' is perhaps implicitly there (with its twofold ludic and mechanical senses, as in jeu) ; but 'fit' has to predominate.

La relation entre les natures est examinée à travers l'étude de situations dans lesquelles des êtres relevant de plusieurs natures sont simultanément mis en valeur. Le désaccord porte alors non seulement sur le résultat de l'épreuve mais également sur le principe qui doit régler sa réalisation et la nature dans laquelle l'épreuve doit être accomplie pour être probante. Le différend, qui s'instaure alors, comporte la possibilité de plusieurs épreuves (ainsi, la dispute à propos de la "compétitivité des services publics" peut tirer vers deux épreuves, l'une de nature civique, l'autre de nature marchande. C'est par là un moment nécessairement instable de la dispute. Il est l'occasion de dévoilement. Cette opération comprend deux mouvements : dans le premier, le bien commun est défait et dénoncé comme bien particulier (dévoiler au sens de démasquer les fausses apparences d'une fausse grandeur), le second mouvement consistant à faire valoir le bien commun d'une autre cité (dévoiler au sens de mettre en valeur une vraie grandeur)…

The relationship between different natures is examined by studying situations in which things belonging to several natures are brought forward simultaneously. Disagreement then concerns not only the result of the test and the distribution of states of worth, but also the principle which is to govern its application and the nature in which the test must be conducted in order to be decisive. The controversy which then ensues contains the possibility of several tests (thus the argument over the 'competitiveness' of the public services may tend towards two different tests, one civic in nature, the other market-oriented). This is a necessarily unstable phase in the dispute. It is a moment of revelation. This operation has two stages : first, the common good is discredited and denounced as a private good (revelation in the sense of the exposure of a false word) ; then the common good of another commonwealth is exhibited and valorized (revelation in the sense of showing off a real worth)…

20For the translator, this passage was the nub of the text, the point at which central choices had to be made, whose implications then radiated out to affect many other choices. My first attempt at opposing démasquer to faire valoir hinged on two phrasal verbs : show up/show off. This was abandonned, partly because I knew that in its new English version the authors might be directly questioned about their argument and would prefer a text closer to their original formation, without too much play on English phrasal verbs. Faire valoir (for which Collins-Robert offers 'exploit', 'turn to good account', 'invest profitably', 'assert', 'emphasize', 'highlight', 'bring out'…) is shortly picked up by mis en valeur (and now we are very close, it seems to me, to mise en relief) :

Il faut, par conséquent, pour relativiser, rester au plus près de l'insignifiant […]. La mise en valeur de la contingence confère à la relativisation un caractère éminemment instable […].

Consequently, in order to relativize, one has to remain as close as possible to the insignificant […] The foregrounding of contingency makes relativi-zation very unstable […]

21No doubt it is clear why I hesitate over the phrase mise en relief. I shall now turn back to Bourdieu and Le Sens pratique. The ethnographic material in the book concerns the Kabyles. The name 'Kabyle' comes from the verb which encapsulates the supreme value of this people : gabel. It is a male value, and male values are systematically opposed to female values. A structuralist would proceed to point out that the series : male, day, dry, right, up, etc. is opposed to the series : female, night, wet, left, down, etc. This mythico-ritual system is unfolded at many points in the book, and a number of the homologies can be seen to work in French too. Thus there is an easy shift from droite (right) to droit (upright), and the polysemy of gauche is similary exploited. Right-upright works well enough, but English cannot follow when the link is made to droit (law) ; 'left' points only to politics and words like (English) 'gauche', or 'gawky' or 'sinister' have to be marshalled on the distaff side.

22Describing the Kabyle house and its relation to the world outside it, Bourdieu writes :

Thus, each of the two universes has its own east, and the two movements most charged with magical significance and consequences – movement from the threshold to the hearth, which should bring fullness and is performed or ritually controlled by woman, and mouvement from the threshold to the outside world, which, by virtue of its inaugural value, contains all that the future will bring, especially the future of farming work – can each be performed in accordance with the beneficent orientation, that is, from west to east. The dual orientation of the space of the house means that one is able both to go in and go out on the right foot (in both senses), with all the magical benefit attached to this observance, without any break in the relationship linking the right-hand side to the high, the bright and the good. (SP p. 459, LP p. 282)

23On peut à la fois entrer et sortir du pied droit, au sens propre et au sens figure : the mythical ideology embedded in English offered the translator an equivalent solution. The next example, too, achieves, in the translator's modest view, a more than adequate equivalence, thanks to inter-textual hints of Tennyson (Tithonus ?), John Donne and Emily Dickinson :

The 'decline of the sun', which 'slopes to the west', is in a sense the paradigm of all forms of decline, in particular old age, and all kinds of physical decadence ('his sun has fallen') or physical decay. To go westward, towards the setting sun (ghereb, as opposed to cherreq, to go towards the rising sun), is to go towards darkness, night, death, like a house whose west-facing door can only receive shadows. (SP p. 421, LP p. 258-9)

24In fact there was, accidentally, a translation gain to be made in the previous example, but it was suppressed because it goes too quickly to the point. In British English, to 'go west' means to die, to be ruined. If that phrase had been used, the whole paragraph would have been so self-evident as to be redundant. In the last example, it seemed possible to introduce a controlled use of this instant myth :

The opposition between going leftwards, turning from right to left, ill-omened movements, and going rightwards, turning from left to right, beneficent movements, connects up with the contrast between 'going west', towards exile and misfortune, and facing east, facing up (gabel), the posture of the body and way of presenting oneself that befits a man of honour, from which one can generate the most fundamental values of the culture, in particular those inscribed in the scheme of spatial orientation : gabel is also, as we have seen, to face the east (Iqibla), the noble direction par excellence, that of halcyon days, good omens, the future (gabel) (and gebbel is to orient eastwards, as is done with the dead in the tomb and the ox that is to be slaughtered with the right hand) ; it is to receive and welcome someone who arrives, to do him honour ; it is also to accept, to grant a wish. Cherreq, to go eastwards, is likewise to go the right way, towards good fortune. By contrast, movement towards the west (Igharb), exile (Ighorba), often identified with death or the tomb, is ill-omened : 'the west is darkness.' 'A maiden,' it is said of the father with many daughters, 'is dusk (Imaghreb)'. (SP p. 437, LP p. 269)

25I would like to think that British readers appreciate the point. The American readership is less well served, since it appears that the American equivalent is… to go south.

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1  Voir texte de référence, Vol. II, Annexe IV.

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Référence papier

Richard Nice, « Myths, Loose Fits and Near Misses  », Palimpsestes, 5 | 1991, 141-151.

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Richard Nice, « Myths, Loose Fits and Near Misses  », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 5 | 1991, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2010, consulté le 21 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.625

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Richard Nice

University of Surrey

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