Monday, February 17, 2014

"What's your problème?": The problem with translating ideas

At times, there is a word we run into when translating that poses a difficulty not only because its meaning is more complex in one or other of the languages, but because the cultural understanding of its meaning is also different. My encounters with these words happen mostly in French, and I am thinking specifically of the French word "problème" which gets translated into English as several different words, depending on context: "problem" "question" "difficulty" "issue" "trouble" "debate," among, probably, others. This word is not simply a false cognate, it is so much more. And it is a cognate that is not entirely false. The complexities in translating this word do not arise simply because English has more ways to say what the French say with one word, it is that the French don't have "problems" the way Americans do. Take, for example, this paragraph from Madame Bovary:

Puis ils [les hommes] avaient quitté la dépouille des bêtes, endossé le drap, creusé des sillons, planté la vigne. Était-ce un bien, et n'y avait-il pas dans cette découverte plus d'inconvénients que davantages? M. Derozerays se posait ce problème.
[Then they [men] had left the corpses of animals, put on a sheet, dug some furrows, planted a vine. Was this really a good thing? Weren't there, in this discovery, more inconveniences than advantages? M. Derozerays [presented this problem to himself] or [asked himself this question].]
Problems, in the modern French mind, are more philosophical musings than tactile difficulties. Flaubert puts the word "problème" (which occurs only twice in the book) into the mouth of a minor character, a common agricultural worker. In a novel where the magnificent is muddled ironically with the banal, the characters who believe themselves to be divinely inspired are beset with "difficultés,"and the plebeian characters are the ones with the "problèmes." This works within the terms Flaubert's irony because "difficultés" are the common obstacles of life, the hang-ups we deal with every day: running out of eggs, a child who won't stop crying, your spouse running into your paramour at the market. "Problèmes" are the sort of hang-ups one would rather have, if one is a romantic character: oscillations of the soul, a questioning of one's reality, struggles to define words like "love" and "virtue." Emma Bovary likes to believe she is the one with "problèmes," but her author never gives her the luxury of this word, no matter how long he has her languish in front of her mirror in pensive poses.

In English, a problem is a more quotidian thing. We tell the doctor, "There is a problem with my stomach," are assigned "problems" to do in math class, ask our fellow chest-thumping neanderthal at the bar if he's "gotta problem, man?" We slog through life's problems so that we can, maybe one day, staring at ourselves in the mirror, begin to have questions, concerns, and irresolutions. We would never call these problems. Problems are the several bottles of nail polish that roll to the floor as we slide our elbow across the vanity in an attempt to bring ourselves closer to our selves. In French, on the other hand,  "Ce qui m'est un problème" is not necessarily "what I have a problem with (what I object to)" but "what is confusing to me, what I don't understand." The "problematique du cours" (course description) is so named because it is a space to address French "problèmes," in the sense of questions, concerns, or meditations. They are thoughts which produce or provoke interest.

Still, the French don't limit their use of this word to these more positive thought-acts. A French "problème" can be a bad thing, as in this Kristeva quotation:
Puisque vous restez irremediablement différent et inacceptable, vous êtes objet de fascination : on vous remarque, on parle de vous, on vous haït ou on vous admire, ou les deux a la fois. Mais vous n'êtes pas une presence banale et negligeable, un M. ou une Mme Tout-le-monde. Vous êtes un problème, un désir: positif ou negatif, jamais neutre (Kristeva, "Toccata et Fugue pour l'Étranger").
[Since you remain irresolutely different and unacceptable, you are an object of fascination: you are noticed, spoken of, hated and admired, or both at once. But you are not a banal or negligible presence, a Mr. or Mrs. Everyone. You are a problem, a desire: positive or negative, never neutral].

The foreigner, or more generally speaking the stranger, presents a set of extremes: hated or admired, a problem or a desire, negative or positive. Disregarding an analysis of the essay itself (which is nonetheless very interesting and possibly deserving of its own blog post) and focusing on the language: the "problème" spoken of here is definitely negative, something to hate. Yet still, the author couches all of these descriptions under the umbrella of "fascination." As a "problème," the stranger may be hated, but is still an object of interest. A problem, for the French, is not something to counter, reject, get rid of, repair, or fix. It is something to think about, meditate on, delve into, examine, and incorporate into the construction of coherence.

These complications are not unique to this word. Several other words in French have given me similar difficulties: "étranger" = stranger, foreigner; "experience" = experiment, experience; "ennui" = annoyance, trouble, depression, apathy. Many of these seem to come from differing attitudes in French and in American culture which manifest themselves linguistically. I am certain other languages produce their own set of difficulties with their own set of words. What interests me about these words in French is that they seem to generally be related to a greater acceptance in French culture of negativity or suffering as something banal, an attitude which finds itself in conflict with the American desire to avoid trouble at all costs. Our avoidance of "problèmes," I believe, is our problem.

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