Hidden in Translation: Downplaying the Seriousness of Civil Rights Threats

Hidden in Translation: Downplaying the Seriousness of Civil Rights Threats January 7, 2022

The following essay is a detailed discussion of the political implications of the meanings of cuss words.  I’m not the one who made this an international civil rights issue? But the topic is crucially important, and a clean-version is not possible. Can I recommend Happy Catholic* if you’d like something beautiful and good to contemplate today instead?

The Wine-Dark Sea is lyrical and thought-provoking, if you’d like to scroll some back issues and be edified.  How about Siris, if philosophy blogging is your thing? Or at the other end of the clean spectrum, Aleteia is really quite good.

No? None of that? You want the cussing?

Okay, you were warned.  Read at your own risk.


Our topic is the interview with French president Emmanuel Macron, described here (in French) and printed here (behind a paywall).  We’re going to look at his word choice in French and its implications, and then, more briefly in conclusion, the decision of English-speaking journalists to mistranslate that word.


Imagine for a moment that Donald Trump, or President Biden if that’s more suited to your situation, made the following statement about people like you: “I am going to piss them off.”

You would rightly infer that this person planned to use his power to make you very, very angry. That’s what pissing off means.  It’s the provoking of an emotional reaction.

Now imagine instead that your opponent threatened to “Screw with you” “F*ck with you” “Screw you over” “F*ck-up your life” or something else on those same lines.  Different meaning.  Now they aren’t just planning to make you angry, they are planning to sabotage you. To embroil you in genuine problems.

“I am going to piss them off” might be said of, say, a new paperwork requirement that’s irritating but manageable. Or perhaps a symbolic undertaking, such as displaying an offensive flag or monument, or intentionally naming a highway in honor of someone you find morally repugnant.

“I am going to screw them,” in contrast, would be paperwork “requirements” that effectively inhibit your ability to go about your daily life.  Or, in the highway example, creating a “highway improvement project” that intentionally limits your ability to get to work, run a business, etc.

Both are displays of ill-will, but whereas the first aims to hurt you emotionally, the second aims to, well, screw you over.


So I’m honestly not great at the finer points of French grammar because I developed fluency in the language not by years of formal study but by attending high school in France.  As a result, however, cussing in French comes quite naturally to me.  And let me tell you: There are fine distinctions to vulgar language in French that have important implications even among, to the non-native speaker relying on dictionary translations, apparently synonymous terms.


First, the word Macron didn’t use: In French if you want to level-up from ticking someone off to full-on pissing someone off, in France you don’t urinate but defecate, using the verb phrase faire chier.  Which means “shit” (literally: to make someone shit) and definitely shit in this case, not poop or crap or anything like that.  Expressions built around chier are expressions of being made angry or frustrated.  (And no, don’t use these in an interview.  In my experience, the verb chier is somewhat more vulgar than emmerder discussed next, but there are plenty of ways to politely express a desire to anger others if that’s your intended meaning.)

The apparently-synonymous noun merde of course means “shit” (or “crap” if you prefer) but it’s not quite as vulgar nor as strong in France as the English-language counterparts are in the US.  The president using it in a speech doesn’t have the same shock value in terms of word-choice generally, so set that aside — it’s how he uses the word that matters more.  The related verb emmerder, which the word President Macron used in his interview discussing the forthcoming pass vaccinal, lacks an English counterpart: Enshitten would be the verb, if it existed.

[Update 1/30/2022: Thanks to The Diary of Samuel Pepys I learned that shitten is an adjective, anyhow. Okay, carrying on . . .]

On the face of it, comparing emmerder and faire chier, the dictionary seems to be proposing synonyms that largely can be translated to piss off.  But, dear readers, President Macron picked the term that has an additional and politically very important implication, and one which he spelled out quite clearly: The plan is to emmerder the non-vaccinated minority by denying them a “social life.”

Access to restaurants, cafes, and theaters is what gets mentioned in most reports of the interview, so you might imagine vie sociale is just the nice, fun stuff people do together in their free time, as wikitionary’s definition indicates.  In French, however, vie sociale can take on a more profound meaning — your life as a member of society, period.  In most interview excerpts, it’s unclear which one Macron is implying.

If you look at the text of the passe vaccinal, however, you’ll see that the new law in question also denies access to regional public transportation — which in France means you are crossing over from merely “social” activities in the American sense (you can live without restaurants and movies) to making it impossible to, say, go to work in the morning.  To participate in community life whatsoever. While some parts of France are, like the US, car-dependent, an enormous portion of the nation’s population is concentrated in urban zones where public transportation is the only viable means of travel beyond your immediate neighborhood.

Correction 1/13/21: On a closer look, local neighborhood public transit isn’t affected, my error there.  Inter-regional trains are the big debate, with the complication that crossing regional lines, just like crossing state lines in the US, is more or less common practice depending on how close you live to a border.  Many people won’t be affected at all, but others will find short, local trips subject to restrictions.   And of course many people living in Paris or other densely-populated metro areas simply don’t own cars, and therefore, yes, would face massive problems if work or family obligations required a trip across regional borders. 

As of this morning, here’s a good English-language synopsis of the current status of the bill.  I’m once again noting how those of us at the “extremes” of Left and Right are finding common ground in defending basic civil liberties.

–> And as long as I’m in here admitting to my errors, I’m going to remind readers that all of this law is concerning a virus that is being actively transmitted by asymptomatic vaccinated people.  The idea that vaccine mandates are stopping the spread is strictly fantasy. Vaccination is doing wonders for reducing the severity of the disease.  But surrounding yourself with only-vaccinated people will in no way protect you from infection.

Okay, picking back up with the original essay:

Hence the word emmerder was chosen quite accurately.  It’s not a strategy to aggravate you; it’s a strategy to create emmerdements or more colloquially, des emerdes — which are real problems that truly screw up your life.

All of that the French are discussing quite freely. Now getting to my point for US readers:

What strikes me as very important from a journalistic point of view is not only Google Translate’s imprecise rendering, but that an outlet like NPR alludes to the translation error but never clarifies it. There is a significant difference between a president creating emotional hostility with a portion of the general public and a president vowing to screw you over.

“I’m gonna piss you off” is, when it comes to legislation, radically different from “I’m gonna screw you.”  The latter is what Macron vowed to do.  To sugarcoat his words, as NPR and others are doing, is to be complicit in hiding the reality of the stated intentions of the law in question.

[Additional update 1/30/22, since I’m here: Anonyme Citoyen is an account documenting the protests in France. Turns out that actively provoking your citizens isn’t a popular move.]


Related: Please read this excellent essay from a fellow pro-vaccine columnist (note the part at the beginning where she mentions her husband is triple-vaxxed) who lays out the serious civil rights implications of vaccine passports.

For your own well-being, please put serious consideration into being vaccinated if you haven’t done so already. But also for your own well-being, please don’t destroy the republic. It’s not worth it.

And also, regardless of your politics, no matter desperately you really do want to screw over the people you are so angry at, please please please join the Clean Air club. It is both one of the lowest-risk interventions available and at this point appears to be the only viable option we have for actually stopping the pandemic.  Worth a shot, seems to me.


File:Blue Angels in delta formation during Fleet Week 2018.jpg

Photo: Blue Angels flying in formation against a clear blue sky © Frank Schulenburg / CC BY-SA 4.0. This is a non-metaphorical picture of one of the reasons I’m so dang insistent on this whole civil rights business, as those who know can attest.


*Full disclosure: Julie Davis and I once got into a private debate about, among other things, cussing in movies.  In retrospect, I think she was more right than I gave her credit for at the time.  So her irony-meter is getting a full workout with this post.  Though honestly looking through it, I ended up cussing less than anticipated.

PS: The etymology on chier is absolutely hilarious. If you’re into irony, anyway.

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