What’s in a word? La rentrée in translation

If there’s one word that stands out for me as a French translator when September comes around, it has to be la rentrée.  Literally meaning the return, there’s a surprising amount of depth hidden in this little word and several reasons for its current relevance.

At this time of year, the French term la rentrée is basically used to mark the end of the summer holidays. More importantly, however, it marks the period when the rhythm of day-to-day life in France resumes after a few months of rest and recuperation over the summer.

Indeed, beyond indicating the start of the new school year and people returning to work from their summer holidays, la rentrée also sees the government getting back to business, the much-anticipated literary season getting underway, clothing shops putting new collections in the shop windows and all the restaurants, bars and other shops that were closed for August finally reopening their doors in a dramatic renaissance that comes close to representing a second opportunity to shout ‘Happy New Year’.

While we experience a vaguely similar phenomenon in England with schools being closed and workers in general taking holidays over the summer months, in France they take it to another level entirely and the Anglo-Saxon world doesn’t have anything quite like la rentrée.

For a freelance translator, the relevance of this period of almost total inactivity for many French companies is immediately obvious from an economic perspective as work tends to be a bit quieter over the course of the summer.

However, aside from its economic impact, looking a little more closely at the word’s linguistic presence provides a fruitful topic of discussion for translators in general as the increased usage of the word ‘rentrée‘ in so many French texts at this time of the year presents an interesting challenge.

While the translation of the term isn’t particularly noteworthy within the context of children starting the new academic year – the phrase ‘back-to-school’ is extremely common in the UK and encapsulates this big return – it is in other contexts (I encounter it primarily in a business context e.g. companies welcoming back customers in their press releases, launching new products or offering deals to coincide with la rentrée) that the term’s cultural associations start to pose a few problems.

Initially, it has to be said that la rentrée is an undeniably elegant way to label the period: the word encapsulates so many associations that simply do not exist in English – we don’t experience the same thing so we don’t need a special word for it.

This leaves the translator having to make do with various paraphrases such as ‘after the summer break’, ‘heading into the autumn’, ‘when we reconvene in September’ etc. but none of these selections quite capture the richness of the French source, as discussed below:

‘The back-to-school period’ – While la rentrée can be viewed in a business context as something of a ‘back-to-school for adults’, adopting this solution in a context unrelated to education or the school year can lead to confusion e.g. ‘what is the relevance of children going back to school to this new online product that my business is considering using?’

‘The period after the summer holidays’ – For me, this translation is a slight move in the right direction as it retains something of the sense of renewal contained within ‘back-to-school’ without being overly explicit (the term ‘summer holidays’ is subtly reminiscent of the 6-week school holidays taken by children in the UK). However, this rendering still fails to capture any of the significance of the event beyond alluding to the return to school and work as there is no indication of the increased relevance of the time off or the impact of the return.

‘In the autumn/fall’ or ‘in September’ – Moving even further from the associations with school holidays, this third solution seems slightly preferable to the previous two as the use of ‘autumn’ or ‘September’ neatly rounds off the summer and indicates the start of something new. However, there just isn’t that same sense of impetus contained within a changing of season or month. With la rentrée there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, a sense of renewal and a recharging of batteries that once again escapes the translator’s grasp…

Ultimately, these few example demonstrate that the most common solutions all leave something to be desired and coerce the translator into conjuring up other (usually equally problematic) potential directions to move in. The temptation to simply retain the French word untouched (accompanied by a translator’s note or a brief explanation) is always appealing but rarely practical while a more literal and inventive rendering such as ‘the big return’ or something similar leaves readers asking ‘the big return of what?’ or ‘who’s returning?’

Thankfully for us French translators, the concept of la rentrée is rarely central to a text and any loss is usually minimal even when employing the solutions mentioned above. However, this example just goes to show that there is a lot more going on in translation than the simple linguistic transposition of text on a page.

The process is so often an act of negotiation and compromise encompassing entire cultures and, while we often necessarily have to leave something behind in reproducing a text in a new language, it is the translator’s job to replicate as many meaningful associations as possible.

Vive la rentrée!

5 thoughts on “What’s in a word? La rentrée in translation

  1. Claire says:

    Thank you for this great post. This example perfectly illustrates the complex role of the translator as a cultural mediator and goes to show that not anyone bilingual can « translate »…

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