Oubilette

  oubilette 3

  Translating something from one language to another, it is impossible to convey the depth and richness of meaning of the original.  The essence with any luck, but not the full flavor.  Surprisingly perhaps, a good way to demonstrate this is by first examining a random passage in English.  The last page of, say, of the Economist, which is usually an obituary.

  Indeed, the last page of the January 19, 2013 issue of the magazine is the obituary of computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz.  In it will be found the following sentence: “He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system.”  Fairly simple and straightforward, right?  Well not so much as it might seem.  The word “hack” proves to be problematic.  In my pocket French/English dictionary there is no ‘hack’, but the translation of ‘hacker’ is given as “pirate informatique”.  “Pirate” is basically the same in both languages.  So “hacker” translates into French as “computer technology pirate”.

  Gets the point across, but not the etymological provenance and thus much is lost.    Look up “hack” in an American dictionary and you get: “To cut or chop with repeated and irregular blows; To break up the surface; To cut or mutilate as if by hacking; taxi driver”.  Only in new dictionaries do the final possible definitions refer to computers.  Thus with “technology pirate” one would not understand what we here do innately, that “to hack” is the infinitive form of a verb  adapted by Americans to describe the process of unauthorized entry into or usage of an information system through actions analogous to the cutting and chopping in days of yore. 

   This all came to mind while attempting to translate an article* from French to English about lessons for the French from the sexual harassment case of Dominque Strauss Kahn in New York City some months ago.  L’Affaire DSK caused quite a bit of discussion about “harcelement sexuel” in France where it has had a much lower profile and different tone than on this side of the Atlantic.  Hard for us to imagine, but a former French minister essentially said about the DSK incident: “what’s the big deal, it wasn’t a murder”. 

  As opposed to in the USA, the rare person accused and convicted of workplace sexual harassment in France may suffer minor punishment, but not the employer.  Thus, there is not in place a system of sensitivity training, reporting responsibility, and serious adjudication with the potential for severe penalties.  There has even been some snickering about American prudishness.

  The article concludes with the following: “… le subject ne risqué pas de tomber aux oubliettes”.  First part is easy: “the subject doesn’t risk falling into…”  The last word is the problem.  A quick glance at my dictionary has the whole phrase “tomber aux oubliettes” and translates it as “sink into oblivion”.  The word alone translates as jail cell.  So, now, in France, due to  all the publicity surrounding the affair DSK, a reexamination of sexual harassment doesn’t risk falling into oblivion. 

   Good thing certainly, but as above, richness of meaning is lost.  Knowing that the infinitive “oublier” means “to forget”, I was curious and got a bigger dictionary where I found that an “oubliette” is a particularly awful sort of medieval dungeon down into which prisoners were lowered through the only opening.  Native French speakers would have understood the emotion attendant to the use of that word and that all hope would have been lost for the occupant of the oubillette as well as any relatives, friends, and sympathizers.    

*Les lecons de l’affaire DSK, interview of Abigail Saguy by Anne Senges, France – Amerique, September 2011

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