Did you follow, in the news, how the French President Emmanuel Macron tripped up translators worldwide this week?
Those of us who, like me, speak French know that its vocabulary can be quite colorful and not always easy to fully convey in different languages. In the last couple of days, we received a vivid reminder of how tricky translation can really be.
The controversy started when President Macron used the verb “emmerder” in an interview with Le Parisien. He was quoted as saying: “J’ai très envie d’emmerder les non-vaccinés,” voicing his intent to make the lives of the non-vaccinated difficult. As the French press reacted to the colloquial expression being used in an official capacity, the headache for linguists worldwide on just how to translate the sentence properly, without being too vulgar and while staying close to its original meaning, began. You see, at its core, the verb has a scatological root in the French “merde,” but its meaning really has little to do with the noun.
Around the globe, the press tried to come up with the closest equivalents. In England, the BBC used, “I want to piss off the non-vaccinated.” That came close in intensity but portrayed a completely different image. The German DPA went with a toned down: “Ich habe große Lust, sie zu nerven,” judging that the original was too explicit to be quoted verbatim. In Der Spiegel, I also read a very polite: ”zu ärgern” that for many seemed much too soft as a euphemism. Apparently, upholding political decorum is still very important across the Rhine.
RAI, the Italian public TV station, went the opposite way and captioned the quote as: “Voglio davvero rompere i c…” The vulgar tone struck by Macron was retained, while not fully expressed at the end of the sentence, nevertheless. Behind the dotted c is hiding “coglioni.” That’s the equivalent of balls, as in “rompere I coglione,” which means “breaking balls.” In Brazil, linguists stayed in the same general vicinity with “Quero ‘encher o saco’ dos não vacinados.”
In Spain, there was little consensus either. El Pais, one of the big publications south of the Pyrenees, translated the verb as “joder.” The Spanish “F” word was an exit too far for some. El Mundo and La Vanguardia went with a more subdued “fastidiar.”
To quote the legendary Renato Beninatto: “Translation is only news when it is bad.” Today he might add: “or a little dirty.”