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Whose Impossible? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 4, 2012

So if you know the third verse of the national anthem of the United States of America, which is not only war-mongering but also mocks the British, then you show yourself to be a spy for the Nazis — read Theophrastus’s immediately preceding post for details. And if you pronounce the Belgian Hergé’s Tintin as “Tinn Tinn,” as Steven Spielberg does, then you may sound more Flemish than French and surely more English or American — see this Theophrastus post.

Since we’re reviewing the language of empires and of French and English, then I’d like to repost something from another blog of mine. It’s something Napoleon reportedly said in English, or was that French?  Here’s the post:

Impossible n’est pas français

The French proverb that is the title of this post is both English and French, or is it just French?:

“Impossible n’est pas français”

It’s funny of course.  Because the English is French and the French English.  The lore is that Napoleon said it — see what “Bruno says” here from Petit dictionnaire des expressions nées de l’histoire.  And the fact is that in 1899, the women of the “International Conference of Women” wrote “Si le mot impossible n’est pas français, il est encore moins féminin” to make the English-French possible as something women can do (i.e., “the impossible”).

Translators rendering the phrase in English tend not only to offer a literal expression of the French but also to provide a comparable English parable proverb as if that’s translation.  “Impossible isn’t French,” is the literal.  “There is no such word as can’t,” is the non-French English translation.  (By my adding italics, there’s another layer of silent meaning that doesn’t come across when the translations are read aloud — in other words, the italicized words signal to the reader “this is the word as a word.”  But the reader speaking the sentences can’t signal this meaning by voice).

You may have seen my earlier posts today on the translating Hélène Cixous. I’m particularly interested in some of the questions and statements there. And then I’ll end this post with some questions for me, and for you too. The bits I want to quote again here are these:

We are reminded here of Derrida’s question: can the process of transfer between texts already written in a plurality of tongues still be called translation? How to translate a text which is already infected by the multiplicity of language (Graham 1985:215)?

all languages are translations. The moment I write, I translate. I translate what I feel in this or that language, which I am going to destabilize. The encounters of my emotions in my thought with the French language, for instance, is going to de-French and re-French French — to free French… Of course the translator has to be a great poet and also a kind of mathematician of an equivalent order to displace the original to its next of kin

So here are my questions:

1.  Isn’t the English-French proverb like much of the Bible, a mixture of language, of translation already?  Is the process of bible translation, then, really “translation”?  Does it “stabilize” meanings the way many hope translation will?

2.  Which is the better English translation of the French proverb above here, after all the explaining?  Is it the literal which ignores the “natural English” contexts and proverb?  Or is it the English idiomatic translation which ignores the not-French English word now as French?

3.  And in translating the proverb can you do even better?  Can’t you?  Impossible?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2012 2:41 pm

    my earlier posts today on the translating Hélène Cixous

    Where did these appear? I don’t see them.

  2. January 4, 2012 2:44 pm

    Thanks for asking. Sorry, I just didn’t make this clear: in my original post (at the other blog and now reproduced here), the “earlier posts today on the translating Hélène Cixous” are linked in the blockquote text.

    For anybody interested, here the links are again with the respective post titles:

    Translating Hélène Cixous

    More Translating Hélène Cixous

  3. January 4, 2012 4:13 pm

    and maybe it’s best also to explain the other two links in the blogpost:

    what “Bruno says” here from Petit dictionnaire des expressions nées de l’histoire is this:

    Impossible n’est pas français

    Encore une phrase célèbre dans la mémoire collective des Français! Pourtant, elle n’a pas été exactement prononcée ainsi; la lettre et l’esprit…

    Jean Léonard, comte Le Marois, était un Normand de Bricquebec (où il vit le jour en 1776) dans la Manche; brave devenu général, il prit part aux guerres du Consulat et de l’Empire, mais resta dans l’ombre de plus grands que lui. Un jour, il « buta » sur un problème et crut bon de s’ouvrir à Napoléon de ce qu’il ne croyait pas possible de réaliser.

    L’Empereur lui répondit dans une lettre : « Ce n’est pas possible, m’écrivez-vous : cela n’est pas français. »

    La postérité retint seulement l’effet positif de la phrase, qui est devenue pour certains une composante du tempérament français.

    Gilles Henry
    Petit dictionnaire des expressions nées de l’histoire
    Tallandier, 1993, p. 259

    Ostensibly, one General Jean Léonard wrote to Napoleon suggesting that a certain action would be beyond possibility, to which the Emperor replied: “‘This is not possible,’ you write; but this is not French.”

    in 1899, the women of the “International Conference of Women” wrote “Si le mot impossible n’est pas français, il est encore moins féminin”

    And this means something like:

    “If impossible isn’t a very French word, then it’s even less so a female word.”


    How’s this for an “English” translation of the French phrase?

    “Inexécutable” isn’t English. (Well, it certainly loses the French that it gains. Ha!)

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