“Insane” ≠ “insensé”

Macron did not just call Trump crazy.

The Guardian, today (my emphasis):

Noting that Trump had also pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accord – another commitment of the Obama administration – Macron said such frequent changes in the US position on global issues “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term”.

Did Macron really mean to call Trump’s policies insane, that is crazy, indicative of a serious mental disorder?

No. Gratuitous insults to a head of state you want things from are stupid and counter-productive, and Macron is not a fool.

I’m sure that he was self-translating “insensé”.

The online Larousse dictionary  gives the meaning as:

Qui n’est pas conforme au bon sens, à la raison : Projet insensé.

The correct English is therefore “senseless”. That’s still rude, but not a personal attack.

Macron’s English is very good, though not quite as good as he thinks. My French is excellent - not boasting, just a fact, I worked with it for 32 years. But neither of us are immune to mistakes, especially of nuance, and most especially of nuance in hard words. Consider the minefield around “nigger”: now completely taboo for non-black English speakers, but I understand acceptable ironically between black friends. Foreigners wouldn’t guess that French “con” is somewhat less offensive than “pute”, while the reverse is true of their English equivalents.

There is a good reason why the interpreters and translators who work for foreign ministries, embassies and international organisations are highly paid and equal in status to administrators. It is very hard to get translations of sensitive material exactly right, and Google Translate is not there yet by a long chalk. *

* Google Translate suggests the literal and meaningless “pas par une longue craie. The fixed phrase “loin s’en faut” does the job, but I don’t know a more picturesque idiom. It has the advantage of the disapproval of the stuffy and idle Académie Française.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

2 thoughts on ““Insane” ≠ “insensé””

  1. It is not feasible to assign Flannery O'Connor's great short story, The Artificial Nigger, in literature classes. C'est dommage.

    This has happened because we have neglected to develop students' awareness of the use-mention distinction; this is not just an academic fine point but it could make our discourse more civil. Utterances in quotes and outside of quotes have different meanings. The Nile is longer than the Chattahoochee, but "The Nile" is shorter than "the Chattahoochee."

    I realize that "the use-mention distinction" is not "an important concept in linguistics," but I wish it were widely understood and applied nevertheless.

    1. I'm not sure that this has happened because we've failed to develop the use-mention distinction. It may be because the use-mention distinction has become mostly obsolete in the hands of provocateurs who claim it as a shield for uncivil behavior (along with apophasis, "it was just a joke/caricature/satire/parody" and various other techniques.)

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